The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the parties involved.
The Andersons needed to have their trees trimmed, so they called Mr. Fixit Landscape and Tree Service, the same tree service they and their neighbors had used many times before. The outfit seemed competent and efficient, and the Anderson's found over the years that they could simply tell the tree service owner what they wanted, and he'd make the decisions on how to do it.
During the course of the Anderson's dealings with Mr. Fixit Landscape, no one had ever asked whether the company had insurance. Mr. Fixit Tree Service did good work, and the price was right. What more does a homeowner need to know?
On the day in question, however, things didn't go so well. Chuck Nelson, one of Mr. Fixit's workers, was using a pole saw when it came into contact with a high voltage line, killing him. Unsurprisingly, an investigation bore out that Mr. Fixit Landscape had cut a few corners, technicalities such as obtaining insurance and paying workers' compensation on its employees. Sadly, the late Mr. Nelson's family was left without a breadwinner, and no money would flow from workers' comp to compensate the survivors for their loss.
The Nelson's hired a personal injury lawyer. Their lawyer correctly identified the Anderson's and their homeowners' insurance policy as the only money available to the Nelson family. Thus, he put together a wrongful death action for the family that argued that under Minnesota workers' comp law, homeowners who hire uninsured contractors are deemed employers of the contractors. Therefore, the Nelson's legal theory went, the Anderson's - as de facto employers of Mr. Nelson - were liable to his family because he died while working under their employ.
Nationwide, annual deaths for the tree care industry were 40 deaths per 100,000 workers. To put that in perspective, the average for all industries is 4 deaths per 100,000 workers. Tree care workers have a fatal accident rate that is roughly 10 times the industry average. They are engaged in what is probably the single most high risk activity you can perform in the United States. Homeowners need to know that there is NO state licensing requirement that ensures tree workers have insurance in Minnesota. Anyone with a chain saw and truck can call themselves an arborist and work on trees.
- The Door Knocker. Never engage with a tree business that solicits door to door.
- Pay in Cash. Never prepay or pay in cash for any service.
- The Low Bidder. Low price is a poor gauge of a quality arborist. Often the better ones are more expensive because of more specialized equipment, more professional training, and insurance costs.
- Ask for verification of personal and property liability insurance and worker's compensation.
- Beware of tree workers who use scare tactics (ie, "this tree will fall on the house and kill you") to convince you to remove of a living tree to avoid risk. The decision to remove a living tree is yours, not the tree workers'.
A lesson here: In Minnesota - in fact, anywhere - a prudent homeowner will make sure the arborist or tree service contractor is insured and licensed, regardless of whether a license has anything to do with competence or skill. And service providers should volunteer proof of their credentials, not just because it looks professional, but because it reflects the kind of attention to detail that can avoid lawsuits.