‘In Autumn 2010 I burned a pile of cardboard boxes on my bonfire, which I weighed down with a couple of logs to stop them blowing away. Once the bonfire appeared to be almost out, I left it and went indoors. At nine o‚clock the same evening, I was alerted by a neighbour to the fact that a spark had crossed in the wind to a woodpile 10 metres away, and caught it alight. The woodpile fire spread into the neighbour’s garden, causing damage to a section of our ajoining hedge and their rear hedge. The neighbour’s insurers now wish to make a claim for the full cost of the repair from ourselves, on the grounds of negligence. Should we admit to negligence, bearing in mind I supervised the bonfire until it appeared safe, and it was simply an unfortunate accident that caused the fire damage? My neighbour’s insurers are now seeking to recover the full cost of the repairs either via my home insurance or via my own pocket. My insurer is sending me a liability claim form, but will not comment on which insurer is legally responsible to honour the claim until it has the full story.
My neighbour proceeded with extensive repairs without consulting ourselves or asking us to file an insurance claim immediately after the incident. We noticed that they have done considerably more work than was necessary to make good the fire damage, by replacing fences all the way around the property, and doing extensive gardening work. Their claim against us of £1750 plus additional tenants’ items (for a figure as yet unnamed) is unitemised. We suspect that this figure may have been inflated by the additional work which was carried out without first discussing the matter with ourselves. How should we proceed in a fair and legal manner? In your view, which insurer is liable in this situation? What should we do if our insurers will not co-operate? Please note we are based in the UK, so obviously US law may be different.’
First, it is important to understand that our answers are based on United States law. As you note, US law may be different, and so our answers apply only to a similar situation in the U.S..
However assuming UK and US law are similar in this regard (and we did, after all, import UK law as a starting point), it’s most likely that you are responsible. Even though the fire appeared to be down to a safe level, the fact is that it started an uncontrolled fire elsewhere.
That having been said, your insurer really should be taking a more aggressive stance on your behalf. In particular, they should be making an independent determination of the reasonable value of repairs to your neighbor’s property, and refusing to pay more than that reasonable value. As between the insurers, this is likely to get the matter settled.
If your insurer doesn’t back you up, you may have to consult with an attorney. Though of course you should consider how much money is at stake before spending more to defend yourself.