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Don't have a scary Halloween: Six frightful scenarios

You've spent weeks preparing for Halloween. Pumpkins are carved. Bowls of candy sit near the front door. Costumes are ready.

But is your homeowner's insurance ready? What happens if a child falls on your sidewalk and his parents sue you for medical costs? Are you liable? What if your house is vandalized? What does your home insurance cover?

A lot depends on what state you live in, what kind of coverage you have, and who your home insurance company is. Here are some situations to give you a better idea of what kind of coverage your home insurance offers.

How to avoid a frightful Halloween

  • Turn on all outside lights. Leave them on all night to deter vandalism.
  • Make sure walks and pathways are clear of debris, leaves, garden equipment and lawn decorations.
  • Repair walkways, railings and steps leading to your home.
  • If a pumpkin gets smashed on your sidewalk, clean up all the slippery goo.
  • Move cars, bikes, planters, sprinklers and other items into a locked garage or inside the house to deter theft or vandalism.
  • Swimming pool owners: Be sure the pool cover is secure, gates are locked and lights are on around the pool area.

Source: The Insurance Information Institute

Scenario 1: Your 8-year-old next-door neighbor cuts across your front lawn and trips — maybe on leaves or her own feet. It's unclear because it's dark outside. She falls and breaks an arm. Are you liable?

You may be held liable. You are covered under the liability portion of standard home insurance policies. In order for that coverage to be triggered, the homeowner must be found negligent.

Most home insurance policies have no-fault medical payments coverage, which will pay up to a specified amount for medical treatment if someone who doesn't live at your house is injured on your property. Coverage limits for this are usually about $1,000 to $5,000, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

Scenario 2: A crowd of pint-sized ghouls and goblins gathers on your porch steps. One of the little monsters starts pushing to the front. The rest push back. She falls off the porch and breaks a wrist. Are you liable?

The burden is on you to prove you weren't at fault. Did you do everything possible to prevent the accident? Did you have the children form a line? Does your porch have railings? If you are found liable, most home insurance policies will cover you.

Determine whether you have enough liability coverage for this kind of accident. You want to have enough to cover the value of your assets. Most basic home insurance policies have liability coverage starting at $100,000, but buying $300,000 in liability coverage is wise, according to the III.

Purchasing an umbrella policy is the easiest and least expensive way to increase your liability coverage. For about $200 to $350 a year, you can get $1 million of liability coverage above and beyond your auto or home insurance coverage, according to the III.

Scenario 3: Neighborhood kids celebrate Halloween by trashing your house. Their arsenal includes eggs, spray paint, stink bombs and rolls of toilet paper. Are you covered for the cleanup and the repair of any damages?

Yes, most home insurance policies cover vandalism. First, determine whether the damage cost is more than your home insurance deductible. Or was there more nuisance than damage?

If the culprits are caught, your insurance company could seek payment for damages from them (or their parents' insurance companies) under a practice called subrogation. Whether your insurer decides to do this depends on the state in which you live and the circumstances of the vandalism.

Fending off fire hazards

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, on Halloween, and the night before, incendiary and suspicious structure fires are about 60 percent more frequent than on an average day. Candle fires increase fourfold during the holiday season, killing more than 10 people, injuring 175, and causing more than $20 million in property losses. The top 5 days for home candle fires are Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year's Day, New Year's Eve and Halloween. Avoid being one of those statistics. Here are some fire safety tips:

  • Avoid decorating with candles. Use small flashlights.
  • Keep crepe paper and other party decorations away from heat sources, including light bulbs.
  • Remember, dried flowers and cornstalks are highly flammable.
  • Use flame-retardant costumes.
  • Keep exits clear.

Source: The National Fire Protection Association

Scenario 4: You throw a big bash and an intoxicated party guest crashes his or her car on the way home. Are you liable for the behavior of your drunk friends?

Maybe. Many states have laws or legal precedents that hold a host responsible for any injuries or property damage done by a guest who has left a party after consuming too much alcohol. A party host can be held responsible for payment of medical bills, vehicle repairs, lost time from work and claims for a wrongful death, which can result in huge monetary settlements.

Scenario 5: On Halloween night, police catch your 12-year-old son and his friends pelting a house with rocks. Windows are broken. Are you liable for your son's actions?

Whether you are held liable depends on your state's laws. In some states, parents are considered vicariously liable for the actions of their resident minor children. Home insurance policies do not cover intentional acts that inflict injury on someone else, says the III.

Scenario 6: A local hooligan saunters onto your lawn. You kick him off your property, using unreasonable force, and his leg is broken.

If that is found to be an intentional act involving excessive force by you, it's likely your home insurance policy would not cover you. The courts also might take into consideration that by turning on the lights and handing out candy you extended an open invitation to your property. You can ask someone to leave your property, but do it carefully and use only as much force as is necessary to get the person to leave, or call the police.

Halloween Safety Tips

Usually a treat for children, Halloween also poses special dangers. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that the number of young pedestrian fatalities (age 15 and under) in dark conditions are 4.5 times higher on Halloween night than the level of incidents on any other night. This amounts to three additional deaths per year. Safe Kids Worldwide, a global organization committed to preventing accidental childhood injuries, asserts that children are twice as likely to be hit by a car on Halloween. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that falls are a leading cause of injuries among children on Halloween. With those scary stats in mind, here are tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Safety Council and the CDC to make Halloween safer:

  • Use face paints instead of masks.
  • Require children to wear comfortable shoes and dress appropriately for weather conditions.
  • Avoid costume accessories that could cause harm, such as knives, swords, broom handles and wands.
  • Avoid loose-fitting costumes that could cause a child to trip and fall and check labels to ensure the costumes are flame-resistant. Add reflective tape to costumes. Small children should have their names and addresses attached to their costumes.
  • An adult should accompany young trick-or-treaters. Discuss safety rules with kids before allowing them to go trick-or-treating.
  • Wear a watch you can read in the dark.
  • Set a trick-or-treating route and stick with it.
  • Remind children to visit homes familiar to them or you and don't approach unlit homes.
  • Remind children not to enter strangers’ homes.
  • Discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior at Halloween time.
  • Provide kids with small battery-powered flashlights.
  • Stay on sidewalks and avoid crossing yards. Cross streets at the corner, use crosswalks (where they exist) and do not cross between parked cars.
  • Drivers, slow down. Watch for children in the street and on medians. Exit driveways and alleyways carefully.
  • Inspect all Halloween treats before children start feasting. Discard any food that is not in its original and undamaged wrapper. Keep homemade food only if you know who prepared it.

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