skip tocontent

ombudsman news

issue 98

November/December 2011

insurance disputes concerning storm and weather damage

The severe weather often experienced in parts of the UK around this time of year can sometimes give rise to the type of insurance complaints featured in this selection of recent cases.

Financial loss caused by storm damage is normally covered by most buildings insurance policies and we deal with a relatively small but steady volume of complaints on this topic. As this selection of cases illustrates, the complaints frequently centre on:

  • what actually constitutes a 'storm';
  • whether the damage was caused by a storm; and
  • whether damage that occurred during a storm was predominately caused by the storm.

In our view, a storm will generally involve violent winds, usually accompanied by heavy rain, hail or snow. However, storm damage can sometimes be caused to property even where the wind has not been particularly strong but where there have, perhaps, been extreme incidents of other forms of bad weather.

The online technical resource, 'buildings insurance: storm damage,' on our website gives detailed information about the issues we consider when looking at complaints concerning storm damage.

issue 98 index of case studies

  • 98/8 - dispute over claim for storm damage to home contents while in temporary storage
  • 98/9 - insurer refuses to pay claim for storm damage to roof and contents
  • 98/10 - policyholder questions insurer's view that wind speed was not strong enough to have caused storm damage
  • 98/11 - dispute over claim for collapse of a retaining wall that policyholder says was caused by flooding
  • 98/12 - insurer refuses to pay claim for damaged guttering caused by heavy snowfall

98/8
dispute over claim for storm damage to home contents while in temporary storage

Mr and Mrs Q made a claim on their household contents insurance for storm damage to some of their furniture and other belongings. The damage had occurred while these items were being stored in a marquee in the couple's garden.

They had bought the marquee specifically to store some of their belongings for around eight weeks while their house was being redecorated. Unfortunately, part of the marquee's canopy was dislodged by the wind during a period of stormy weather. As a result, wind and rain got inside the marquee, causing what Mr and Mrs Q estimated to be around £10,000-worth of damage to the items inside.

After appointing a loss adjuster to inspect and report on the damage, the insurer turned down the claim. It said Mr and Mrs Q should have notified it of the 'change in circumstances regarding the storage of household contents'. The insurer also said that the couple had 'failed to take reasonable steps to prevent loss, damage or accident'.

Mr and Mrs Q complained to the insurer, saying it had treated them unfairly, but it told them it was not prepared to reconsider the matter. They then referred the complaint to us.

complaint not upheld
We looked at the terms and conditions of the policy. In our view these set out clearly the requirement for policyholders to 'take reasonable steps to protect their property' and to 'notify the insurer of any significant change in circumstances which might affect the policy'.

After obtaining information about the specific model of marquee that Mr and Mrs Q had bought, we concluded that it was not suitable for use as a storage facility. The sales brochure that the couple had been sent before they bought the marquee described it as being of 'superior quality', as did the user manual they received when they bought it. However, both documents included prominent warnings that the marquee should be 'taken down in high winds' and that 'leakages' might occur.

In our view that made it particularly unsuitable to be used, as in this case, to store furniture during the autumn, when there was a strong likelihood of very wet and windy weather.

We noted, in addition, that the marquee appeared to present an increased risk of malicious damage or theft. It could not be locked and although it was visible from the street, it could not easily be seen from inside the house.

Having reviewed all the circumstances, we could not agree with the insurer that by storing their belongings in a marquee that was not entirely weatherproof or secure, Mr and Mrs Q had 'failed to take reasonable steps to prevent loss, damage or accident'. They had taken steps to protect their property by buying the marquee and they said they had not expected such poor weather to occur.

The couple had, however, failed to tell the insurer of the 'change in circumstances regarding the storage of household contents'. We pointed out to them that if the insurer had known how they were planning to store their belongings, it would in all probability have said they should make more appropriate arrangements, if they wished to remain covered by the policy.

The risk the insurer had agreed to cover was for contents inside a property - and not inside a temporary structure that might be vulnerable to sudden poor weather or other risks. We did not uphold the complaint.

98/9
insurer refuses to pay claim for storm damage to roof and contents

Mr and Mrs A made a claim under their home insurance policy for storm damage. They said that 'as a result of the recent storm and the wet and stormy weather' over the previous few months, water had been seeping into their home from the roof, causing damage to their décor and belongings.

The insurer appointed a roofing specialist to inspect the roof and the reported damage. The specialist noted that new guttering had been installed relatively recently and that some of the roof tiles had been cut back so that this guttering would fit. In the specialist's view, it was this that had resulted - over time - in water starting to come through the roof.

On the basis of the specialist's report, the insurer turned down the claim. It told Mr and Mrs A that there was no evidence the damage had been caused by an 'insured event' (in other words, by something that was covered under the policy).

Mr and Mrs A were very unhappy with this. They sent the insurer a letter from the contractor who had installed their new guttering. The contractor stated that this work 'could not have caused or contributed to' the problem with the roof. He did not say what he thought the cause of the problem might be.

The insurer told Mr and Mrs A there was nothing in the contractor's letter that would cause it to reconsider the claim. The couple then referred the dispute to us, saying that their insurance policy had let them down at the very time they needed it.

complaint not upheld
We explained to Mr and Mrs A that, in common with any insurance, their policy only covered any loss or damage that was caused by a specific insured event, such as storm, fire, theft etc.

In this particular case, there was no dispute over the fact that there had been a storm shortly before the damage was reported. What we needed to decide was whether the insurer had acted reasonably when deciding that it was not the storm that had caused the damage.

After reviewing all the evidence, we concluded that it was unlikely that a one-off storm had caused the damage. Generally, any water damage caused by an identifiable storm tends to be confined to a specific area. In this case, the damage was more widespread.

We agreed with the insurer that the damage was more likely to have occurred gradually over time, as the result of general bad weather and perhaps also because of poor workmanship. And we noted that when making their claim, Mr and Mrs A had themselves said that the damage had been caused by the 'wet and stormy weather over the past few months'. We did not uphold the complaint.

98/10
policyholder questions insurer's view that wind speed was not strong enough to have caused storm damage

Mrs I was disappointed when her buildings insurer refused to pay her claim for storm damage to the stone cladding on the front of her house.

The insurer said there had been no reports of storm conditions in her town at the time she said the damage had occurred. It told her it could only consider claims for storm damage if wind speeds reached level 10 on the Beaufort scale (in other words, between 55 and 63 mph). The recorded wind speeds for the period in question had not been as strong as this.

Mrs I thought this was unfair. She said the fact that the wind had been strong enough to cause the damage 'regardless of its exact speed' indicated that her claim should be covered under the policy.

She said that if the insurer insisted that the claim was not covered under the 'storm damage' section of the policy, then the claim should be paid under the 'accidental damage' section.

The insurer remained adamant that it would not pay her claim. It told her its investigations had shown that the damage had been caused by 'gradual deterioration and wear and tear', which was not covered under any section of her policy.

complaint upheld
We told the insurer that we do not consider the recorded wind speed, as measured on the Beaufort scale, to be the deciding factor in cases involving storm damage. This has long been our approach in such cases, and we take the general view that damage can occur even where the wind speed is lower than level 10 on the Beaufort scale.

Sometimes, for example, there can be extremely strong localised gusts in areas that are some way from the weather station, or where the particular layout of buildings has created unusual wind conditions. In this case, we noted that there had been reports of significant wind and rain in the area covered by Mrs I's postcode on the day she said the damage had occurred.

The insurer had told Mrs I that because of exclusions relating to 'wear and tear' and 'gradual deterioration', it was unable to consider her claim under any section of the policy. However, we pointed out that these exclusions applied only to claims for accidental damage, not to the other sections of the policy.

We upheld the complaint and told the insurer to deal with the claim under the section of the policy that covered storm damage.

98/11
dispute over claim for collapse of a retaining wall that policyholder says was caused by flooding

Mr C put in a claim to his insurer when a retaining wall in his garden collapsed after heavy rainfall that he said amounted to a 'flood'. His garden was on sloping ground and the wall, which was over 100 years old, had been holding back earth between the garden and the patio next to his house.

The loss adjuster appointed by the insurer inspected the damage and reported that it could not be attributable to an 'insured event'. Instead, the loss adjuster said the main cause of the damage was gradual deterioration over a long period of time. As this was not covered under the policy, the insurer refused to pay the claim.

Mr C complained about this. He said he was sure the damage was covered - and that if the insurer would not meet the claim under the 'storm and flood' section of the policy, then it should do so under the section that covered 'landslip'.

The insurer disagreed. The policy stated that a claim for landslip could only succeed in these particular circumstances if Mr C's house or garage had been affected at the same time. This had not happened and the insurer re-stated its view that the cause of the damage was gradual deterioration over a long period of time, something that was not covered by the policy. Mr C then referred his complaint to us.

complaint not upheld
Typically, for a flood claim to succeed, there would need to have been an accumulation of water, even if it had built up gradually. In this case there was no evidence of any build-up of water behind the retaining wall.

The loss adjuster had established that the wall incorporated 'weep holes' for drainage. So to 'flood' the soil, the amount of rainfall would have had to be very substantial in order to overwhelm the weep holes and accumulate behind the wall. We checked the local weather records for the day of the incident and concluded that there had not been sufficient rainfall to have caused this type of flooding in this location.

We also looked at whether the damage might reasonably be attributed to a 'storm'. There was no dispute that there had been some heavy rainfall in the period leading up to the damage. However, there was no evidence of the high winds normally associated with storm conditions. And we thought it unlikely, in any event, that a storm could have been sufficient, on its own, to cause the wall to collapse.

We confirmed that the policy conditions excluded damage to the wall caused by landslip in the absence of damage to the house or garden.

We explained to Mr C why we did not think the insurer had acted unfairly or unreasonably. We did not uphold the complaint.

98/12
insurer refuses to pay claim for damaged guttering caused by heavy snowfall

Mrs M put in a claim to her buildings insurer for storm damage when she discovered, after a week of heavy snowfall, that the guttering on the roof of her house had been damaged. The insurer would not pay out as it said the damage had been caused by the weight of the snow on the guttering over a period of time, rather than by an 'insured event', such as a storm.

Unhappy with this, Mrs M brought her complaint to us.

complaint not upheld
We looked at the details of Mrs M's policy, which provided cover for a list of 'insured events' including flood, fire and storm. For a claim to succeed under the policy, the damage had to have been caused by one of these 'events'.

There was no dispute about the fact that there had been extremely bad weather around the time when Mrs M discovered the damage to the guttering. However, as we explained to her, the policy did not provide cover for damage arising simply from bad weather. The weather had to have been severe enough to constitute a 'storm', so we would generally expect it to have involved violent winds as well as rain, hail or snow.

Local weather records for the period when the damage happened showed there had been heavy snow on several consecutive days. However, there was nothing to indicate that there had been a 'storm', as there was no evidence of violent wind.

The damage that had occurred in this case, caused by the weight of snow over a few days, was of the type that can often be claimed for under the 'accidental damage' section of a household insurance policy. But Mrs M's policy did not include cover for accidental damage and there was no other section of the policy under which she could have claimed.

So we explained that, in the circumstances, the insurer had not treated her unfairly in refusing to pay her claim. We did not uphold the complaint.

image of ombudsman news

ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.