Anticipated California Mudslides and Mudflows in the Wake of El Niño

In past blogs, I’ve discussed the difference between landslides known as mudslides and mudflows, and how these types of losses are usually excluded from the average homeowner policy. In many instances to have coverage for mudslides or mudflows, a separate earth movement or flood policy must be purchased. However, in the wake of the El Niño storms and anticipated mudslides and mudflows, I think it’s important to revisit the topic because every homeowner who receives a blanket denial should not take that denial to be set in stone as the denial may not be proper. Every denial on the basis that the loss is excluded under an average homeowner policy as an exclusion should be looked at with a fresh pair of eyes in the event the loss suffered has a separate reason for “causation”

This first whole week of January, 2016, shows a forecast of rain for the next 10 days in Southern California. There are rumors that meteorologists are anticipating two feet of snow in the local mountains. Although Californians are counting on the anticipated snowpack to end California’s drought, these rains and melting snows will contribute to the mudslides and mudflows that will undoubtedly be incredibly destructive and the subject of many homeowner’s claims in the next few months.

In the event of a mudslide or mudflow loss, case law in California gives hope for those homeowners whose insurance denies a mudslide/mudflow loss. Often these mudslides or mudflows are categorized as a type of landslide. Often, when there’s land movement in a loss, the loss may be caused by other covered events. For instance, landslides can be the end result of land decimated by wildfires or hillside pipe bursts. Over the last two years in Camarillo and in the Dos Vientos areas of Southern California, many homeowners suffered mud and rock slides burying their homes after the hillsides above were ravaged by wildfires. The brush was decimated from the wildfires resulting in the lack of foliage to hold the hillside when the rains ensued. Likewise, in certain areas of the canyons in California, when DWP’s pipes burst underground, hillside areas in residential districts were saturated and in danger of mudslides with the additional rains. These types of losses are covered by insurance because losses by fire or pipe bursts are traditionally covered under a normal homeowner’s policy.

Specifically, in California, in the case of Garvey v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Company,1 when scrutinizing coverage under an insurance policy, the law looks to the “efficient proximate cause” of the loss. “Where there is a concurrence of different causes . . . the one that sets others in motion” determines whether coverage exists.2 This means that if a covered loss sets the mudslide or mudflow into existence, then there is the possibility of insurance coverage.

In Howell v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Company,3 the court decided that when a fire destroys the brush and other vegetation on a slope and rainfall subsequently ensues causing a mudslide, then efficient proximate cause provides loss coverage. Clearly, in California, the courts understand that the vicious circle of draught, fires, rain, and mudslides that are so common, should be considered before coverage is excluded in devastating landslide losses.

1 Garvey v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 395, 406-08.
2 See Sabella v. Wisler (1963) 59 Cal.2d 21, 31-32.
3 Howell v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 1446.


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