Why insurance claims on storm-damaged garden walls are often rejected?

31 October 2012 Alexander Forbes Insurance

Since most wall failures occur after rain and wind storms, with the summer rains arriving early in the eastern half of the country, and winter rains persisting in the west, insurers are having an especially busy year managing claims for failed garden and boundary walls.

Insurance is designed to cover damage by sudden and accidental causes. It is not intended to cover losses that occur through gradual causes, wear and tear, defective design, defective materials or a failure to build the wall properly in the first place.

As such, “insurers often find that a bad weather event is just the last incident in a gradual process leading to the failure of walls at this time of year – with many people disappointed when their wall claim is rejected” says Gari Dombo, Managing Director, Alexander Forbes Insurance.

Building regulations apply differently to walls of different heights, setting out the dimensions of foundations, wall thicknesses, pier sizes and pier spacing’s. These dimensions differ for load bearing walls, freestanding and retaining walls.

For example, a freestanding wall 90mm’s (single brick) thick may only be 0.8 metres high. With 200 x 290 mm piers spaced 1.8 metres apart this wall can be 1.2 metres high. A freestanding wall at 1.6 metres high, on the other hand, must be 140 mm thick with 300 x 290 mm piers spaced 2.0 metres apart, or it must be 190mm thick with 400 x 290 mm piers spaced 2.5 metres apart.

Since a retaining wall would have to be much stronger, it would also have to have wider foundations and be thicker – depending on how high it is and how high the soil is that it has to retain. Drainage and weep holes are also important in the design and there are separate regulations for the construction of retaining walls as well.

Often in South Africa, homeowners, wishing to secure their properties against crime extend the height of existing walls. Before adding to existing walls, however, home owners should check the dimensions of the foundations of these walls. “Foundations built for a 3 foot high breeze block garden fence are unlikely to support an eight foot high solid brick and plastered wall topped by electric fencing for very long” warns Dombo.

An insurance assessor can very quickly establish whether a wall collapsed as a result of storm, or because it was built on inadequate foundations. If the foundations were inadequate an insurer will not pay out for the damage as the wall collapsed due to poor design, not storm.

If a freestanding wall is too high for its foundation or is too thin it is less resistant to the persistent fluctuating forces of nature, such as wind and changes in moisture and temperature that cause normal expansion and contraction. A wall subjected to continual movement or stress for which it was not designed will cause the cement to lose its adhesion, weakening the structure. A wall that is too high is also likely to be too heavy for its foundation and gradual settlement or rotation (tilting) can occur.

As such, “before purchasing a property, it is recommended that an independent building expert be appointed to report on the condition of the buildings and other structures, recording what was not built to code” advises Dombo. Certainly, the inspector of the financial institution from which new home owners have raised a loan is unlikely to report this level of detail as they are mainly interested in making sure that the lender can get their investment back if the debt fails.

Prospective home buyers should, therefore, take the time to establish whether the walls in the home they are considering are supported by foundations of the correct dimensions to support walls of that size. Often sellers or building contractors extend smaller walls without reinforcing or widening foundations “knowing that they are only likely to collapse in a few years time – long after they have received their money and moved on” warns Dombo.

Since most home owners will not know a design or construction defect exists unless it is obvious, nor will they be able to tell whether a structure has been built in accordance with building regulations, it is recommended that a qualified specialist be appointed to assess the property, providing a written report confirming that all structures conform to building regulations.

“If you already have non-compliant walls your options are to alter them - by adding extra piers or widening foundations, for example. If you don’t, you cannot expect your insurer to cover the wall for any deterioration or failure” says Dombo.

From a maintenance perspective home owners should regularly check boundary and garden walls removing any pressures on them. Cracking mortar joints will indicate pressure as will tilting or leaning walls. To prevent wall damage homeowners should remove soil that has built up against free standing walls and watch out for root damage near trees as well as vegetation leaning or hanging on a wall. Creepers and branches can become extremely heavy, particularly when it rains. Also, make sure that weep holes and drainage systems are not blocked. “All walls that obstruct the flow of water, should also have drainage courses or weep holes to prevent water build up during storms” adds Dombo.

That said, insurers are not unreasonable and do understand that most clients are not familiar with building regulations. As such, when evaluating a claim, insurers will generally consider whether or not a weather event would have done the same damage to a regulation compliant structure. “If so, there is a good chance that they will pay the claim since each claim is considered on its own merit” says Dombo.

Regardless of the reasons for a wall falling, “if it injures a passing pedestrian or motorist, or damages third party property, even if it was poorly designed or badly built, your liability is likely to be covered by the general property owners liability extension on your buildings policy” says Dombo. That said, if it is obvious that a wall is likely to fall soon, homeowners must take steps to keep people away from the wall so they are not injured.

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