The Housing Authority of Somerset, US was liable for failing to maintain an area where a tree fell on three victims and the jury award was $3.7 million. The insurance policy limited coverage to $1 million for each ‘occurrence’. It was held that this was one occurrence.

The tree fell on two cousins, one of whom was pregnant. The doctors tried to save the child but the child died one hour after his mother. The other cousin survived but suffered serious injury. The contract defined ‘occurrence’ to mean ‘an accident’.

The court held that under common parlance when one tree falls at one time that is one occurrence and one accident. Similarly, a single car accident is a single occurrence even if it causes injuries to a number of people.

It was imaginatively suggested by the claimants that different branches of the same tree caused different injuries creating three accidents, not one. That, said the court ‘slices things too finely because you can’t cut a plank so many times that it has just one side’. In addition, nothing was changed by the fact that the deaths arose from multiple causes or had plural consequences or results.

Here, where one tree and one fall caused all the harm, it was one occurrence and the policy limit of $1 million applied.

The case is Evanstone Insurance Company v Housing Authority of Somerset.