Snow, ice and insurance

16.02.2011

Eva Berlaus
Country Managing Partner
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Santa Rubīna
Senior Associate
Ph +371 67 365 000
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It seemed that the snow would all just melt and spring might start, but this was an illusion. Snow again began to fall and temperatures dropped, raising questions whether the events at the outset of this year could happen again and whether my building is protected from too thick a layer of snow collecting on the roof.

Events outside the scope of the insured's control
If you wish to claim insurance indemnity because the roof has fallen in or walls are damaged due to melting snow, first of all you have to find out whether the damage is caused by an event listed in the insurance policy. No uniform insurance terms and conditions exist, so that insurers define the insured event variously. For example, some insurers define ‘constant snowfall' as an increase in snow cover of at least 10 cm within 12 hours. Others indicate that snow cover must increase by 20 cm within 12 hours. Moreover, according to some insurance agreements damage to a building must be caused during actual snowfall or shortly afterwards. Some insurance contracts require that losses must be incurred within 48 hours after snowfall.

How to set limits?
We have to distinguish two different situations: (a) when a thick layer of snow falls in a comparatively short time resulting in roof collapse and (b) when during a thaw the upper floor is repeatedly flooded due to poor roof quality. Only in the first case can we speak of an event that does not depend on the insured's will. Therefore it might be possible to talk about payment of insurance indemnity if the building was insured against risk of excessive snowfall. The latter case unfortunately establishes the owner's or the manager's failure to keep the building in order. Thus the insurer can help neither the owner of the building, nor tenants or lessees.

What should be done when an accident has already occurred?
If an insured owner of a building has not cleared away snow and trusts that everything will be settled just because the building is insured, then most likely the insurer will deny payment of insurance indemnity. Here we might talk about the insured's failure to perform their duties under the insurance agreement. Usually insurance agreements impose an obligation to operate the building in compliance with requirements of laws and municipal regulations, as well as denying claims for payment of insurance indemnity if the insured has in effect assisted occurrence of the insured event. Some insurers have specially indicated that the insured must clean snow and ice from roofs, for example, an obligation to remove snow within 24 hours after a snowfall. If these obligations are not fulfilled, then nobody could be blamed. It is advisable to think about future activities to ensure that such a situation would not repeat itself.

Undeniably one can say that removal of snow from roofs requires professional skills, but all industrial climbers were busy at the beginning of the year. Therefore the obligation to remove snow from the roof within 24 hours could be regarded as a task that is excessively burdensome and disproportionate or even practically impossible. Foreign case law uses a test of the "reasonable insured" - whether a reasonable person whose interests are not insured would act in the same way as the actual insured did. If the owner has taken all necessary measures to prevent losses, then it would be possible to speak of the right to claim indemnity if excessive snowfall risk was insured. It should be added that a solution to these issues would be largely determined by the actual circumstances as well as the insured's ability to prove that they have done all they could to prevent losses.

If your property has suffered because the owner or manager of property failed to perform their obligations, then you should claim compensation from them. First, it is important to collect evidence, including photos and statements. Second, all possible solutions should be objectively evaluated, including the possibility to reach an agreement because a peaceful settlement is a better solution in most cases than lengthy and expensive proceedings. Finally, it is worth thinking about steps that should be taken to ensure that this will not happen again, for example, whether there is a need to appoint another manager to ensure proper maintenance of the building. These solutions will undeniably take time and it might be complicated to make the necessary changes. However, the results could significantly outweigh the efforts invested.

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