Heavy rain, flooding and other events can do serious damage to a person’s home; the cost to repair the damage can run to the thousands of dollars. The law may offer protection against some types of water damage depending on the source of the damage and whether a homeowner has homeowners’ insurance.

Usually when a person experiences water damage, they look to their homeowner’s insurance (or renter’s insurance or condominium insurance) to cover the cost of repairing the damage. If the person submits a claim to their homeowner’s insurance, whether their insurance will pay to repair the damage depends on the language in their insurance policy. 

There are several types of water damage that may or may not be covered by a person’s insurance, such as:

  • Sudden or accidental discharge from pipes or hoses in the home;
  • Sewer backup and overflow or water backup; 
  • Overflow or leaking from a home appliance, e.g. malfunctioning washing machine or dishwasher;
  • Flooding of natural origin after a natural disaster.

Generally, damage caused by slow leaks, e.g. from a water heater, or slightly cracked pipe or leaking hose connected to an appliance, is not covered by homeowner’s insurance. So, even if a person’s homeowner’s policy covers water damage, it does not cover damage caused by slow, gradual leaking. Rather an insurance policy covers damage caused by sudden and accidental events.

A person’s defense against slow, gradual leaks is proper maintenance and regular inspections of the key components in their home, for example: 

  • The water heater; 
  • Piping connected to the bathrooms, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers, 
  • The piping and hoses that service the automatic ice maker in a refrigerator;
  • Any other appliance or feature that uses water, e.g. an aquarium, pool or pond;
  • The roof;
  • The basement for cracks in the foundation that allow water to intrude.

However, if a neighbor’s careless act causes an artificial diversion of water to a person’s property, the person may recover money damages from the neighbor for any harm caused. In general, a neighbor will not be responsible for damage to a person’s property caused by runoff from naturally occurring land and weather conditions. 

However, a neighbor can be liable if the neighbor’s negligence caused damage. If the neighbor’s negligence results in an event that directs water to a person’s property causing damage, the person can make a water damage claim for damages.

What Is Considered a Natural Disaster?

When a natural disaster, or an “act of god,” destroys a person’s property, no other landowner can be held liable for the damage that results. A natural disaster may include:

  • Earthquakes;
  • Floods;
  • Thunderstorms;
  • Tornadoes;
  • Hurricanes.

A water damage lawsuit against a neighbor would not be helpful for damage caused by these natural disasters.

A property owner can get natural disaster insurance to cover damages caused by these “acts of god,” such as floods and earthquakes. Natural disaster insurance can cover:

  • Mold damage;
  • Walls and insulation;
  • The cost of a motel for temporary relocation.

But any type of payment for repair of damage from natural disasters is only available if a person’s homeowner’s insurance policy explicitly covers that type of damage when caused by sudden and accidental events. 

Most policies do not cover, or exclude, damage caused by the following natural disasters:

  • Floods;
  • Earthquakes, landslides, and mudslides;
  • Sinkholes.

If a person’s house is located in a flood plain, their mortgage lender may well require them to have flood insurance. If a person wants this type of coverage, it may be available, but it would have to be paid for as an extra rider to their homeowner’s insurance policy. 

A person should never assume they have insurance coverage for any kind of natural disaster. Rather they should inspect their policy and speak with their insurance agent or broker or their insurance company and make sure they have the type of coverage they need and want.

Water Damage Caused by Carelessness of a Landowner

If a neighbor’s careless act results in the artificial diversion of water to a person’s property, the person may recover damages from the neighbor for the resulting harm. In general, again, a neighbor will not be responsible for damage to a person’s property caused by runoff from naturally occurring land and drainage conditions.

However, if the neighbor has landscaped or altered their property, so that more water runs onto a person’s land than would happen naturally, the person may be able to recover damages from the neighbor. There are three laws that may help in this situation: 

  1. The Reasonable Use Rule: In a majority of states, under this rule, if a neighbor alters the drainage pattern of their land, the neighbor may be liable for the resulting damage to a person’s adjacent property if the alteration was unreasonable or unnecessary;
  2. The Common Enemy Rule: This rule treats all rainwater and other natural sources of water as a “common enemy” to landowners. Under this rule of law, landowners can take whatever steps they wish to prevent and protect their land from surface and runoff water;
  3. The Civil Law Rule: This rule imposes liability on any landowner who changes their land in a way that alters the natural flow of water across the land. Therefore, under the “Civil Law Rule”, if a neighbor alters their property, and the change causes damage to an adjacent property, the owner of that property may have a valid claim for damages against their neighbor.

What Kind of Water Damage Can a Landowner Be Liable For?

If a neighbor’s negligence causes water damage to a person’s property, the person can sue the neighbor for property water damage. The person could recover money damages for the following items:

  • The cost of repairs or replacement of damaged property;
  • Loss of use, i.e., the cost of staying in a hotel until the person’s property is repaired;
  • Medical expenses; this would include treatment for physical injuries and emotional distress;
  • Punitive damages if the neighbor acted with more than just negligence and knew the damage their act would cause.

Recovery would depend on the person showing that the neighbor, who had a duty of care not to cause damage to the person’s property, breached that duty by negligently making alterations to their property, which caused damage to the person’s adjacent property. The person would have to offer proof of the damage done, the costs incurred in repairing the damage and the cost of treating any resulting personal injury. This would be a standard lawsuit for negligence.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have a Water Damage Problem?

Whether you have suffered water damage or are accused of causing water damage to another person’s property, a real estate and property attorney can help you. Sorting out causes can become complicated and might require the services of an experienced lawyer.

A lawyer will know the specific laws in your state and can help you recover for your losses or defend you from liability. An attorney in your area can also help you review your homeowner’s insurance policy and understand what kind of coverage you have. They can help you prepare a claim and negotiate with your insurance company in order to get the best possible settlement. Or, if a lawsuit becomes necessary, of course, a lawyer can represent you in court. You are most likely to get the best possible outcome if you have an experienced real estate and property law attorney.