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Fire insurance claims for thatched properties can be a minefield

We wrote a couple of weeks ago about woodburners and the particular dangers for thatched roofs. We often have to deal with fire claims for thatched properties and insurance cover for them is much more complex than for properties with standard tile or slate roofs.

All insurance policies for thatched properties have warranties which stipulate certain requirements to avoid invalidating the cover. Some are more onerous than others, but most are what we refer to as ‘precedent to liability’. This means that, if you don’t comply, your insurer can elect not to deal with your claim regardless of whether the breach of warranty is in any way material to the ignition or spread of the fire.

One example we had to deal with was where it was assumed an ember came out from the chimney and ignited the thatch. The first the owner knew about it was when neighbours started banging on the door to tell them that the entire roof was ablaze.

Fire extinguisher in the wrong place

The owners had a thatch warranty which included a number of the common conditions they had to comply with, including an electrical inspection and certificate, a fire blanket available in the kitchen and having the chimney swept. Our clients were able to demonstrate compliance with all the conditions apart from one – the requirement to have a working fire extinguisher available in the kitchen. In fact our clients had a fire extinguisher just yards away in their stable block, but amazingly the insurers repudiated liability because the thatch warranty hadn’t been fully complied with.

In the event, we were able to overturn the insurer’s decision, but to help us do this we had to obtain a statement from a very senior fire officer who attended the fire to testify that, regardless of whether or not they had a fire extinguisher immediately to hand (or indeed any number of fire extinguishers), it would not have made any difference by the time they were aware of the fire. In fact he said that the brigade’s advice would always be never to try to tackle an established roof fire with a fire extinguisher, which they would have had to do from a ladder.

After a bit of a battle the insurers backed down. Even though the warranty was precedent to liability, we were able to convince the insurers that neither the Ombudsman nor any judge would support their decision to decline a large claim on what was effectively a technicality which had no relevance to the loss itself.

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