2020 has been quite a year.
While civil unrest isn’t a new concept in the United States, it has become more prevalent in recent months as a reaction to the deaths of people who include George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others. Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths have sparked a new wave of civil unrest that, although not the first, also surely isn’t the last in this country.
In many cities across the nation, peaceful protests allowed people to express their concerns, thoughts, and feelings about society, both generally and specifically. In the U.S., there is a constitutional right to join in protest or peaceful assembly.
However, there is no right to rioting or engaging in behavior that leaves people with damage or injuries, including the destruction of property. So when such behavior occurs, homeowners and business owners are often left wondering:
Who pays for my property damage caused by a riot?
Insurance coverage for riot damages
Homeowners insurance, auto insurance, and business insurance might cover damage caused by rioting or other civil commotion. Of course, it depends on your specific policy coverage, but it’s included in many standard policies.
- Homeowners insurance usually covers damage to your home’s structure and includes your personal possessions and living expenses if your home is uninhabitable during the repairs.
- Auto insurance usually covers this type of damage if you have an optional comprehensive policy.
- Business insurance sometimes covers damage from physical destruction, like broken windows, fire, etc. If you’re forced to close or limit hours because of rioting, this might be covered under your business interruption insurance if your business has sustained physical damage.
In addition, some Business Owner Policy (BOPs) cover “civil authority,” which means you could receive lost income and additional expenses if a police officer, firefighter or another official must prevent you from accessing certain areas of your business as a result of physical damage to a nearby business or because of rioting or commotion.
A civil commotion is a revolt by a large gathering of people in a public place.
What if insurance doesn’t pay your damages?
Although insurance will often cover riot damages, it’s not a guarantee. There might be “fine print” in your policy that includes exceptions for damages from civil unrest. Or, it’s possible your deductible could be so high that it makes it impossible for you to be restored without losing a substantial sum of money.
If insurance isn’t going to work in your situation, you might look to your next option, which could be a lawsuit.
But, who can you sue?
The basic premise of a personal injury (which includes loss of property, in addition to physical personal injury) is that the plaintiff can sue the person or entity that caused the loss for the amount of money required to make the plaintiff whole, or to restore them to the financial condition they’d be in if the injury hadn’t happened.
In order to make a claim, you have to know who was responsible for the loss.
Identifying a defendant
If your loss was from an event like a car accident, a slip-and-fall, medical malpractice, or some other “usual” physical injury, it’s often fairly straightforward to know who was at fault. It could be another driver, the property owner, or a doctor.
But rioters are much more difficult to identify.
The first step might be to contact law enforcement. If there are reliable witnesses or surveillance camera footage that recorded the damage as it happened, law enforcement might be able to identify a suspect. If the state charges the person with a crime, then you would be entitled to pursuing a lawsuit for civil damages.
Even if the state doesn’t charge the person with a crime, if you can identify them and prove that they caused the damage that resulted in your losses, you can file a lawsuit against them for the amount of your loss.
Government assistance for riot damages
The U.K. passed the Riot Compensation Act in 2016, which allows people and insurance companies to claim compensation from the local policing body or government.
The United States does NOT have a comparable law.
Some states have a riot relief fund, but not every state does and even those that do can make case-by-case determinations about whether or not to grant relief. The federal government has money available for disaster relief (like hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters), but not for riot damage. The federal government might call in the National Guard to get riots under control and minimize damage, but you won’t see an organization like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) providing supplies, food, or shelter to affected people after a riot.
You can find out whether there are funds available in your state or county, but there are no federal options for riot relief.
Riot damages and COVID-19
For riot damage that’s happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, insurance companies and businesses face a unique set of circumstances. Although “business loss” because of riot damage is usually covered under your BOP, some insurers are finding it challenging to determine what business loss is related to riots and what’s related to the pandemic.
Many businesses were already closed or operating on a limited basis when the 2020 riots began, and many of those losses are not covered by insurance.
A business that’s making an insurance claim for losses related to rioting might face an uphill battle to show that their losses result from riots and are not because of the coronavirus.
Both the coronavirus and civil unrest might be with us for a while. Now might be a good time to review your homeowners, auto, and business insurance policies to see what each covers, for how much, and what the exceptions to your coverage might be. You can always purchase additional insurance coverage if you believe that your home or business might be in danger because of civil commotion.