Can I Sue for Wildfire Damage?

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 What is a Wildfire?

Wildfires are large and destructive fires which spread quickly over brush or woodland. Wildfires are uncontrolled and wipe out large areas of land and large fields.

In many cases, a wildfire is started by a lightning strike. However, a wildfire may also be caused by arson or careless individuals.

Careless individuals can start wildfires by doing things such as throwing lit cigarettes into areas of dry brush. In the United States, the number of wildfires which occur each year varies greatly.

For example, in 2011 there were 74,126 recorded wildfires and 58,950 wildfires recorded in 2020. The amount of land which is affected also varies by year.

There were approximately 4.6 million acres burned in the United States in 2019. In 2020, there were over 10 million acres which burned as a result of wildfires.

How are Wildfires Formed?

A wildfire is formed when three conditions are present, including:

  • Fuel;
  • Oxygen; and
  • A heat source.

Fuel can be any material which is flammable in a fire, including:

  • Trees;
  • Grass;
  • Brush; and
  • Residences or buildings.

The fire then picks up momentum after starting and burns even more quickly when there are multiple sources of fuel. The air in the atmosphere supplies the fire with the oxygen it needs to burn.

Heat sources may come from several places, including:

  • Lightning;
  • Hot winds; or
  • The sun.

If My Property is Damaged in a Wildfire, Can I Sue?

The answer to the question of whether or not an individual can sue if their property is damaged by a wildfire will depend on the circumstances of the situation. A company or an individual whose property is damaged by a wildfire will be able to sue the responsible party if that fire was caused by negligence.

In order to prevail on a claim based upon negligence, the plaintiff, or injured party, is required to show the following:

  • That the perpetrator of the fire had a duty of care to the plaintiff;
  • That the perpetrator breached that duty; and
  • As a result of that breach of duty, the plaintiff suffered damages.

For example, suppose a group of individuals are camping. These individuals owe the other campers a duty of care not to start an uncontrolled fire at the campground.

If one of the campers carelessly tossed their cigarette into some firewood and then left the area, the cigarette may spark and catch fire. Any individuals who are harmed by the fire which resulted may have a claim of negligence against the individual who tossed their cigarette.

Are There Any Other Causes of Actions I Can File Against the Perpetrator?

If an individual who caused a wildfire did so with malicious intent, the plaintiff may be able to sue under an intentional tort theory. Intentional torts are actions which are committed with the intent to harm or with the knowledge that their conduct is likely to cause harm to another individual.

The harm which results may include physical harm to the individual as well as damage to the individual’s property. In this regard, if an individual intentionally sets a wildfire, called an arsonist, burns down another individual’s home, they can file an intentional tort claim against the arsonist.

Who Decides Whether the Perpetrator is Guilty?

Similar to any other civil lawsuit, a defendant is entitled to their day in court to prove their innocence. Both the plaintiff and the defendant will present their case in court and a jury of their peers or a judge will determine guilt, depending on the case.

After the judge or jury hears the case in its entirety, a verdict of guilty or not guilty will be given.

What is Hazard Insurance?

Individuals may also have hazard insurance which protects their home in case certain events occur, including natural disasters such as wildfires. Hazard insurance policies are not always included in a regular homeowner’s insurance policy.

Although homeowner’s policies do usually cover events such as theft or fire, it may be necessary for an individual to purchase additional hazard insurance to protect their investment in case a hazard occurs, which can include:

  • An earthquake;
  • A flood;
  • A hurricane;
  • A wildfire; and
  • Other types of severe events.

The payment terms and rates for hazard insurance may vary depending upon the insurance needs of the individual as well as the company they purchase their insurance from.

What Does Hazard Insurance Cover?

It is common for a regular homeowner’s policy not to cover events which happen frequently in certain areas of the country, such as:

  • Wildfires;
  • Tornadoes;
  • Earthquakes; and
  • Hurricanes.

In areas where these occurrences are common, such as Florida and California, it is likely that an individual’s regular homeowner’s policy will not cover these types of events. This is due to the cost to the insurance companies.

If an individual resides in these types of areas, they will want to make sure they check on hazard insurance. In many cases, when a home in such an area is purchased, the buyer will be required to purchase hazard insurance in order to obtain financing for a home.

It is most important to be aware of what is covered by an individual’s homeowner’s insurance policy. Examples of categories of hazards which will most likely require a separate hazard insurance policy include:

  • Floods;
  • Fires, especially wildfires;
  • Earthquakes;
  • Storms, such as tornadoes and hurricanes;
  • Landslides and erosion; and
  • Sinkholes.

What are Some Legal Disputes that are Common on the Issue of Hazard Insurance?

Insurance coverage is essentially a contract between two parties, the insured and the insurer. Any time a contract exists between parties, there may be disputes which arise.

This is especially common in cases of insurance contracts, where disputes may arise when an injured party makes a claim and the insurance company disputes the validity of that claim. In contrast to the more standard clauses which are found in typical homeowner’s policies, hazard insurance contracts are more specific because they are tailored to the specific needs of the insured party.

There are several reasons which a dispute may arise between the insured and the insurer, including:

  • Discrimination, which occurs when the company denies or withholds coverage based on the applicant’s:
    • age;
    • race;
    • sex; or
    • nationality;
  • An attempt to claim an incident which is outside of the normal hazard insurance coverage or an attempt to claim damage which is caused by the homeowner’s own negligence;
  • Fraud or misrepresentation; and
  • Breach of one of the terms of the insurance contract, such as defaulting on a monthly payment.

If an individual is required to sue their insurer, the legal consequences will usually involve an award of economic compensatory damages. Damages are awarded to compensate the non-violating party for any financial losses which were caused by the breach.

There may also be more severe remedies which occur, including the loss of an operating license or a fine if the insurance agent violated industry standards. Suing an insurance company, although sometimes necessary, can be a very complex endeavor. It usually requires the assistance of an attorney in order for an individual to have the best chance at prevailing.

Should I Contact an Attorney About Suing for Wildfire Damage?

It is essential to have the assistance of a personal injury attorney for any issues you may have related to wildfire damage. If the wildfire damage is the result of human actions, the injured party has the right to sue.

If you believe that the damages you sustained due to a wildfire were caused by an individual who was negligent or intentionally set the fire, it is important to consult with an attorney as soon as possible. It can be helpful for your claim if the local fire department or police department knows what individual started the fire or what the cause of the fire was.

If your wildfire damage was caused by an individual’s intentional acts, it will also be helpful to your case if the responsible individual was charged and found guilty of criminal arson. Your attorney will review your situation, assist you with obtaining compensation for your damages, and represent you in court.

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