First, let us say that it is with great sadness that we read about the loss of life and injuries resulting from the Berkeley, CA balcony collapse at an apartment building. This tragedy absolutely could and should have been averted. There appears at this time to be no sensible, logical reason for this collapse to have occurred.
Allegedly there was a noise complaint made shortly before the collapse, but even with an inordinate number of people on the balcony in question, it should not have disintegrated. In the past we’ve questioned whether building codes should be strengthened. It’s unknown whether shoddy construction work or deferred maintenance may have contributed to this terrible event, though both seem to be strong possibilities. In the coming weeks, we’re certain the answer will be available. But for now, for the ones left behind, and for the ones who were not even on the balcony or at the party in question, how do they move on with their lives after this horrific tragedy? How can they rebuild and reclaim the property destroyed in the Berkeley balcony collapse?
In this area, many students have Berkeley Renters Insurance. It’s common knowledge that the policy protects against things like fire and theft, but many people are asking right now if they might be able to get some satisfaction from and be made whole by their policy, or if this is a loss they need to bear on their own. That’s an interesting question, and there are a few variables to consider, but a studious read of the policy suggests a few ways that people who suffered a loss to their property as a result of the Berkeley balcony collapse might be able to recover and replace their property.
Even though California doesn’t use insurance credit scores to determine pricing or underwriting eligibility for renters insurance, most carriers use the standard HO-4 policy form to write these policies on. This form, developed by the Insurance Services Office, is called the “broad form” for a reason – it offers broad coverage against a wide variety of perils that could cause damage to personal property.
One of those perils named in the policy is “falling objects.” While that peril is perhaps not intended for a loss of this type, let’s take a look and see if there would be coverage under that peril.
The Berkeley balcony collapse certainly involved falling objects, though the drafters of the policy likely contemplated waste from airplanes or similar causes of loss, there may indeed be coverage on the Berkeley Renters Insurance of residents for this loss as a loss caused by a falling object.
The peril does explicitly state that it only covers losses from falling objects under renters insurance if the object first damages or pierces the roof or outside walls of the building. While damage to a glass door might arguably be damage to the exterior wall, we understand that pieces of the falling balcony did damage the exterior wall. That would mean that a piece of the balcony which came through the wall could render all damage caused by the balcony collapse as covered under this peril, because the balcony itself is arguably the falling object as a whole, even though it fell in multiple pieces. It’s fairly likely that you could find coverage under this peril, but let’s look for something a bit more substantial.
Collapse is a peril listed under “additional coverage”. Notably, it excludes damage caused by settling, cracking, bulging, or expansion but those don’t seem to be at play here. The policy insures against risk of direct physical loss caused by collapse of a building or part of a building (the balcony would qualify) caused by one or more of the following:
- hidden decay
- hidden bird, insect, or vermin damage
- weight of contents, equipment, animals, or people
- weight of precipitation which collects on a roof
- use of defective material or methods in alteration, construction, remodeling, or renovation if the collapse occurs during the course of the [the above alterations]
If “deferred maintenance” weakened the structure such that it caused the balcony to collapse, that would be covered under hidden decay or hidden bird, insect, or vermin damage. It’s unknown for certain at this time the exact cause, but poor maintenance certainly is not off the table, nor is damage from insects or other creatures. If a raccoon chewed through the bolts that held up the balcony – unlikely as raccoons often prefer to limit their iron intake for their general health – that would be considered vermin damage and as long as it was not known to the residents (also unlikely, tenants rarely make regular inspections of the condition of the structure itself), coverage could apply.
We can eliminate weight of precipitation collecting on a roof for two reasons. First, California hasn’t had much precipitation of late, and second the balcony collapse was clearly not caused by the weight of anything on the roof. Were that the case, it would have been a roof collapse which is an entirely separate matter.
The two most likely causes of this incident, however, are overloading the balcony with people or a construction or maintenance defect. If the landlord or the landlord’s employee or contractor did shoddy work, used substandard materials, or was otherwise negligent, the policy could cover personal property damaged by the collapsing balcony. If the tenants using the balcony to hold part of their party were negligent in overloading the balcony with people, that also is likely a covered loss.
If you’re a resident who has suffered a personal property loss as a result of this incident, your Berkeley Renters Insurance is likely to offer some coverage for those items. You likely also can make a claim for loss of use, to cover the time spent in a hotel because your apartment is unusable after this collapse. That’s a coverage many people don’t realize that they even have, and it’s quite useful when an unexpected event keeps you from using the unit you rent. Hotels get expensive quickly, and your policy has your back there as well. Loss of use is triggered by a covered loss to property, and it seems likely that the property losses would be covered.
What happens after your insurance company has paid for your loss of use and personal property damaged in this tragedy? For you, that’s generally the end of the story – you’ve been made whole. But your insurer has by now determined who is responsible for the loss. If the exchange students holding the party were responsible, the story probably ends there – they have no assets to take, on or off US soil. But if the landlord or a contractor was responsible due to their negligence, there’s a good chance your insurance company will sue to recover what was paid out, including your deductible. If the contractor or landlord has insurance and the payment is made, you’ll often even get your deductible back as part of the process. Your insurer isn’t just subrogating to recover what they paid, they’re doing it on behalf of you as well. Their duty to indemnify you extends to attempting to recover the money you paid to resolve the claim as well – that’s just one more way that your Berkeley Renters Insurance policy works hard to protect you.
There is another option that would allow your policy to cover the loss to your personal property and your additional expenses, without having to go through the above analysis, but few people are aware of it and most people think it’s expensive. For about two dollars a month, you can often add coverage called “open perils” to your renters insurance. This changes the policy in such a way as to remove the list of covered perils and replace it with the words “We insure against risk of direct physical loss or damage…” followed by a few obvious exclusions such as nuclear war. With open perils renters insurance, you don’t need to worry about analysing your coverage and trying to determine the specifics, you have coverage for that loss or damage. It’s often worth having, since it costs very little, and you can call Effective Coverage to learn more about open perils from a renters insurance expert.
Again, we extend our deepest sympathies to those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic event. No amount of insurance can make their families whole again. Those who suffered other losses as a result of this event are able to pick up and move on with their lives because they had the coverage they needed, but that doesn’t offer anything to the families who lost loved ones. We suspect that some building code or occupancy changes may result from this tragedy, and that would be an outcome that might at least prevent future losses of life.