Most woodland owners believe that any liabilities arising from a lawsuit by someone injured while on their property are covered by their homeowner’s insurance policy. It’s a nice thought, but the truth is a lot of homeowner’s insurance does not cover your woodlands at all.

Common misconceptions about landowner liability

  • My homeowner’s policy covers my woodlands.
    Maybe, maybe not.
  • A personal catastrophe policy will cover my woodlands.
    Verify that.
  • I have my woodland in a limited liability corporation (LLC).
    An LLC is still liable for any award up to the value of the land, timber and assets involved.
  • Liability lawsuits are rare in my experience.
    Don’t be the first person you know to experience one.
  • If I own land in other states, I am still covered.
    Probably not.

Landowners have long recognized the need for insurance to protect their home and property. And farm insurance generally covered more common risks to woodlands and fields. But as people have moved off farms and the farms have reverted to woodlands, both the insurance coverage and risks have gradually changed.

A recent survey of members of the National Woodland Owners Association revealed that most were unsure of the extent of their insurance and whether their woodlands were fully covered. If you are not sure, you need to contact your insurance agent… today! You may discover that instead of a yes or no, the answer might be “it depends.” That answer should be a red flag.

All states have insurance laws, but they vary by state. Plus, details of insurance policies vary by company. About 25 years ago, at the urging of state fish and wildlife agencies, legislatures enacted laws intended to limit the liability of landowners who allow free public hunting, fishing, and recreation on their private land. Missouri enacted such a law back in 1983. But that protection does not apply if you charge a fee.

The enactment of landowner liability limitation laws persuaded many landowners to open their lands, some with the belief that they are exempt from liability. The truth is their liability may be limited, but they are never exempt.

How do I protect my woodlands from known hazards?

  • Cover, cable or chain gates with white PVC pipe. Flagging tape may not be enough. ATV riders using your land with or without your permission are a real liability.
  • Post warnings above steep walls or cliffs.
  • Remove hazard, leaning, or large trees with dead limbs.
  • Cover old wells.
  • Warn of deep water in ponds, especially if man-made.
  • Level unstable log piles.
  • Post or drain streamside areas. Be careful not to violate wetland protection laws in the process.
  • Cut and remove exposed roots. Roots have been alleged to have been hazards known to the landowner.

The landowner liability laws in every state do not apply if a case for willful neglect can be made. Experienced liability attorneys allege willful neglect on the part of the landowner to successfully skirt the liability limitation laws. If they are successful in persuading the jury, or a judge, that you knew in advance of a danger on your land and did nothing, you can be held accountable for the injuries, lost work, human stress, or even death of the plaintiff.

Since vacant land and hunter liability insurance came on the market 20 years ago, many people have purchased it. The policies generally do not cover buildings.

So, you are now aware and have purchased the necessary insurance. Should you be served with a summons to court, your first call is to your insurance carrier. You do not have to find an attorney on your own and worry if he or she is experienced in liability litigation. Remember, the plaintiff’s attorney is likely very experienced and may be taking the case without charge in return for a share of the award.

But what if you are now aware and do not call your insurance carrier to find out where you stand? Do you really want to roll the dice?

Where to start

Several insurance groups offer liability coverage to forest and woodland owners. Here are two agencies that advertise regularly within the forestry community. These are only suggestions to get you started and not an endorsement of their products.