Subrogating Christmas

One of the classic holiday movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a story about an ordinary family, the Griswolds, who have big Christmas plans that predictably take a turn for the very (funny) worst. One of the memorable scenes from the movie involves the home decoration skills of the family patriarch, Clark Griswold:

     Aunt Bethany: Is your house on fire, Clark?

     Clark Griswold: No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christmas lights do start the house on fire. Not to be a Grinch, but let’s discuss some of the property claims that can occur around the holidays.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are a large part of the holiday season in many homes and finding (and sometimes even cutting down) a real Christmas tree with its sights and smells is an important tradition for many families.

The dangers with real Christmas trees come with the fact that the tree immediately starts to dry out once it is cut down. According to a recent National Fire Protection Association Report, between 2010 and 2014, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 210 home structure fires per year that began with Christmas trees. These fires caused an annual average of $16.2 million in direct property damage.

So, what causes these fires?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported that electrical problems were factors in the majority of residential Christmas tree fires. Electrical problems not only include the decorative lights that are placed on the Christmas tree, but also the distribution of power to the lights. Overloaded outlets, outlet multipliers, power strips, and surge protectors are all products that can fail and are potential heat sources that can cause a fire.

Be wary that many Christmas tree fires start in January or February, after the tree has completely stopped absorbing water and has become dangerously dry and brittle. Also, a Christmas tree placed too close to a fireplace or candles can easily be a fire hazard.

While real Christmas trees have an obvious issue, artificial Christmas trees have their own concerns. Artificial trees can be reused multiple times and often have built-in lighting and other features that make them convenient to the consumer. However, this convenience also sometimes leads to the continued use of potentially old, outdated, and dangerous products.

Additionally, artificial trees are utilized only once a year, are usually not inspected prior to use, and are often being stored in a basement or attic space where moisture can be prevalent. Internal wiring can be damaged during storage and assembly and may not be readily accessible for the user to inspect prior to use.

Christmas Lights

As in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, decorative Christmas lights are often utilized both inside and outside of the home during the holidays. In parts of the country, the holiday season correlates with the beginning of snow, ice, and colder temperatures, which can negatively impact electrical devices. Also, Christmas lights are often attached to readily available fuel sources, including siding, eaves, and other parts of the home.

Electrical components, including extension cords, are often rated for interior or exterior use, and care should be taken that a product that is only rated for interior use is not used outdoors in the elements. Extension cords that can be used outdoors will be clearly marked “Suitable for Use with Outdoor Appliances.” Never use an indoor extension cord outdoors, because it could result in a fire hazard.

Manufacturers design electrical plugs, receptacles, and wiring insulation differently to withstand water infiltration and the fluctuation of outdoor temperatures that comes with external use. The use of an electrical cord outdoors, which was designed to be used indoors, can often lead to product failure.

Subrogation Recovery Tips

With any type of fire caused by electrical products, care has to be taken in the initial inspection to recover all potential devices that may have caused the fire. Sources can include the decorative lights themselves, the extension cord that is used to transfer power, the surge protector where multiple electrical cords are connected, the timer in which the lights are plugged, and even the electrical outlet itself.

An origin and cause expert will investigate the fire and burn patterns to determine the origin of the fire and any sources that potentially caused the fire. Any product that may have potentially caused the fire should be retained as instructed by applicable NFPA guidelines. If possible, manufacturers should be invited to inspect the loss site, but, at the very least, all potential devices that caused the fire should be retained for further inspection and everything should be well documented.

Finally, a good source of information will be the insureds themselves, in that hopefully they can provide a date range of the purchase of the products and where the items were purchased. Insureds can also potentially provide other exemplar products, if multiple strands of Christmas lights or multiple electrical cords were purchased at the same time. These exemplars can be the key in determining who the manufacturer is, whether the device was being used properly, and what potentially went wrong with the device.

Please keep your tree watered, do not overload your electrical outlets, and if you are hanging lights outside, make sure that your extension cord is rated for outdoor use. Have a safe and happy holiday season!

If you should have any questions regarding this article or subrogation in general, please contact Aaron Plamann at aplamann@mwl-law.com.

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Aaron D. Plamann
Sr. Associate Attorney

Aaron D. Plamann is a trial lawyer with the law firm of Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C. Aaron is also a mechanical engineer with design experience and has lectured extensively before insurance companies as well as other professional organizations around the country on various insurance-related topics.