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Homeowners insurance does not cover damage to land.

What happens when the gulf oil comes ashore?

There is a sad fact of life when it comes to dealing with insurance companies. You should read all the small print before you buy a policy and, if you are surprised at how the insurer decides to interpret the policy when you make a claim, you must be ready with an attorney. Telling it as it is: insurance companies like to make a profit. If they have to pay out too many big claims, their profit starts getting small. That gives them an incentive to keep finding new ways to avoid paying out. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, home owners discovered their policies covered storm damage, but limited or excluded claims arising from flooding. The cause of much of the damage was a storm surge where the wind drove the water to higher than usual levels. The issue for the courts was whether the resulting damage was covered as storm damage or excluded as flood damage. The practical reality was that, for the people whose homes were damaged, the precise cause and effect mattered little. They had lost their homes. For the insurance companies, the courts were deciding claims worth billions of dollars. Needless to say, the courts at state and federal levels gave often wildly different interpretations and produced very different results. That is what happens when vast numbers of people line up to sue multiple defendants. Some win. Some lose.

One of the more interesting outcomes of the litigation was the decision of some insurance companies to stop selling policies in the Gulf states. They gave as their reason the increasingly uncertain legal environment. The companies that still write home insurance coverage now have different language. Policyholders hope the law will be on their side. The attorneys acting the the insurance industry remain confident they now have their clients protected.

Over the last few weeks, we have been watching a new slow-motion threat emerge in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon rig operated by BP exploded and, with the pipe broken on the sea bed, crude oil is now pumping out into the water. Oil has already started to come ashore in Louisiana. Residents in the other states are taking out their policies to see what the small print says. So let's say the average home owner with a property on the coast has a standard homeowners insurance policy, federal flood insurance, hurricane and windstorm coverage, sinkhole coverage, and so on. What will happen when the oil comes? Well, there will be terms allowing claims in the event of an explosion. Unfortunately, the destruction of the rig happened too far away for it to count directly. A court would have to find the explosion was the main cause of the oil coming onshore. Winds and tides play their part in this process. So then we come to the terms allowing claims if the property is damaged by "pollutants". Crude oil is a natural substance and not a pollutant as defined by insurers. But it is possible that, if it did damage the structure of your property, you would have a claim. Except, most properties are built on the land, not on stilts over the sea. Very few homeowners insurance policies cover damage to the land on which the house stands. The result? Win or lose, a lot of attorneys are going to get rich suing BP.

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