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Friday, February 28, 2020

Court: Burning of trees caused damage to vehicles, but wasn't covered by insurance

By Nicholas Gueguen | Mar 15, 2017

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HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline) – The Montana Supreme Court has overturned a First Judicial District Court's decision regarding insurance coverage, ruling that Robert Fitte's Mountain West automobile insurance policy did not provide coverage for the losses he suffered to work vehicles from a fire that Fitte started to burn trees.

According to the court's Feb. 21 decision, Fitte runs a construction business out of his home in Lewis and Clark counties. Fitte cut down two trees on his property that had been killed by beetles out of a concern that the trees might fall on his work vehicles.

He burned the branches from the trees, though a fire started from the ashes and started a wildfire. Fitte carried two insurance policies issued by Mountain West.

The Montana Supreme Court held that the district court wrongly ruled that Fitte burning the remains of the trees he cut down was part of him maintaining those vehicles, because he decided to get rid of those remains by burning them after he had cut the trees down.

Because of that, the Montana Supreme Court reasoned that burning the trees was not needed in maintaining the work vehicles. The Montana Supreme Court also held that burning the trees was not needed in maintaining the vehicles because Fitte could have chosen to get rid of the remains of the trees in another way.

According to the Montana Supreme Court decision, Stephen Behlmer, whom Fitte assigned the benefits of his insurance policy to, reasoned that the policy should cover the damages because Fitte's maintenance to his vehicles caused the fire.

The Montana Supreme Court also outlined in its decision that Behlmer said that the district court was right when it determined that Fitte was doing maintenance to the vehicles. The Montana Supreme Court also outlined that Behlmer quoted the district court when he reasoned that because Fitte had cut the trees down he also had to get rid of them, and that because of that, the fire and Fitte's maintenance of the vehicles were linked.

Mountain West had reasoned that Fitte burning the tree remains was not part of maintaining his vehicles.

"Fitte’s decision to dispose of the branches by burning them and his action of starting the fire occurred after the trees had been cut down," the court wrote.

"As Fitte admitted in his deposition, the perceived risk to his vehicles was eliminated when he felled the trees."  

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