When Fireworks Go Wrong

Robert H. Bourdeau

Photo Credit: [azri]
July 4 and the weeks surrounding it are usually filled with all sorts of celebrations involving fireworks. The use of fireworks is, without a doubt, best left to professionals; we’re talking about highly flammable and explosive materials whose dangers are underestimated by most. Nonetheless, many types of fireworks are legal in Michigan (see [lara] and [det] below) and are extremely popular with normal folks who enjoy the experience of putting on a little show of their own.

I recognize that not everyone loves fireworks, notably because of the noise they produce, the environmental impact, and the dangers they can pose to people and property. These concerns are justified. The Consumer Products Safety Commission reports that, in 2014, there were 11 deaths directly related to fireworks and over 10,000 injuries, with the greatest number of injuries caused to children [cprs]. In addition to the risks of injury, there’s an even greater risk of damage to property. The National Fire Prevention Association says that, in 2011, “fireworks caused an estimated 17,800 reported fires, including 1,200 total structure fires, 400 vehicle fires, and 16,300 outside and other fires” [nfpa]. We’re talking about serious risks of serious damage and injuries when fireworks are involved.

So we know that there will be a lot of fun fireworks around July 4, and we also know that if history is any kind of predictor, it’s very likely that some of these fireworks will cause fire damage and injuries. These possible bad outcomes should make everyone think to themselves……..

  • “What if my home is seriously damaged by me or someone else?”
  • “What if someone gets hurt as a result of my fireworks?”

These are great questions, and I’ll try to give you some answers.

Source of Insurance Coverage

As an individual, your main source of insurance protection as it relates to fireworks is going to come from a home insurance policy. Such policies include home owner insurance as well as tenant insurance. A home owner policy will normally pay for damage to your home, your stuff, and also damage or injuries you cause to others (liability). A tenant policy will normally pay for damage to your stuff and also for damage you cause to others, but not the building you live in because you don’t own it. Now, no insurance policy pays for everything. Insurance policies are filled with rules that explain when the policy does and does not pay out, so we need to look deeper to better understand how your policy might work for you.

Notable Insurance Exclusions

Insurance policies explain both what is covered and what is not covered.  The words describing what “is not” covered are called exclusions, and there are two big exclusions, big gaping holes, in almost every insurance policy:

  • illegal activities,
  • intentional actions or grossly negligent actions.

If either of the above two phrases apply to a loss, you are out of luck. You won’t get any payments from your insurance company in these cases.

Photo Credit: [wired]
For example, let’s suppose you obtain some extremely powerful fireworks that are considered illegal, such as those in the photo to the right. Those mortars look really big and I seriously doubt that Michigan law allows a normal person like you or me to purchase or ignite them. Nonetheless, there you are with these massive fireworks and you light them off setting fire to your roof, your car, and the neighbor’s barn. It is very, very unlikely that your personal insurance policy will pay for the loss. Both your possession of these fireworks and the act of you lighting them were illegal, so claim denied. You’ll be paying for all the damage yourself.

Photo Credit: [lantern]
Another increasingly popular item is the sky lantern. These items are basically bags made of tissue paper that have a torch mounted at the opening. They fill up with hot air and float away. I’m sure that you can imagine that these items might lead to fires and injuries. They float randomly and have the potential to snag on trees, power lines, and buildings, and they do eventually come down. Some communities have or are trying to pass ordinances to ban sky lanterns (see [freep]). If you cause damage with one of these, in a community that has made them illegal, then you could again be faced with a loss of insurance coverage for the damage.

Sometimes people get goofy and even reckless. If you and your girlfriend get into a bottle rocket war, shooting them at each other, you could have a problem. Because you did this on purpose, your insurance company would most likely deny your claim. You might argue that, while you did intend to point the rocket at her, you did not intend for her to get hurt. The exclusions in the insurance policy also say if any reasonable person would have expected their actions to result in injury, then resulting injury won’t be covered.

The “Good” News

Now, if we are really talking about an accident involving legal fireworks, an outcome that you really didn’t intend or expect, and couldn’t really have prevented, then there’s a very good chance that your insurance policy is going to come help you pay for damages. Let’s consider a few scenarios.

You accidentally cause damage to your own home or personal property with a firework. Your home insurance policy would normally be there to pay for the damage. This coverage is normally described in Section I “Property Protection”. The damage could have been caused by fire, glass breakage, explosion, and even water damage caused by trying to put out a fire. These types of losses would usually be taken care of by your insurance, subtracting your deductible from the payout.

A neighbor lights off fireworks that set fire to the leaves in your gutter, and damage the umbrella and furniture on your deck. The same part of your policy would apply as if you accidentally caused the damage yourself. Even though the neighbor caused the damage, it’s your property that was damaged.  You could just demand that the neighbor pay for it themselves rather than file a claim on your own insurance policy.  If your neighbor pays for it, you won’t have to pay a deductible but you might have to fight with them in court. Also, if you have replacement cost coverage on your home policy, you will probably get a better settlement for the damage than you would if you had the neighbor pay for the damage. Sometimes it’s just better to let the insurance company deal with it. Now, you can be sure that after the insurance company fixes your home, they will probably follow up with the person who actually caused the damage and expect them to pay.

You light off a sky lantern that lands on a neighbor’s roof causing damage. Assuming that lanterns are legal in the area that you live, this is an example of where the liability insurance usually included in your home policy comes into play. Your neighbor might sue you for the damage if it is extensive, or your neighbor might just file a claim on their own policy and let their insurance company come after you. Either way, your liability coverage is going to be very important to you.

Liability coverage will also be important if someone is injured because of your fun with fireworks. Minor injuries requiring a little bit of first aid can be paid for by the section of your policy titled “Medical Payments” and it doesn’t even matter if you were at fault. But if the injuries were more serious, then the Personal Liability coverage is going to defend you in court and pay damages if they arise.

Additional Insurance Protection

Photo Credit: [umbrella]
You can imagine that playing with fireworks, no matter how safe you try to be, can have some pretty serious consequences. This might be a good time to consider purchasing an umbrella policy. Umbrella policies provide you with additional dollars to pay for damage you cause to others, and fireworks can cause a lot of damage.

Safety Is Critical

In all this discussion, please keep in mind that I’m not condoning the use of fireworks. In fact, Michigan has been a little dry recently and that should make you even a little more cautious about fireworks. But if you are going to use them, please be careful. Here are a few thoughts on fireworks safety from the Basic safety tips, from the American Pyrotechnics Association, National Council on Fireworks Safety and the Insurance Information Institute:

Photo Credit: [kids]
  • Don’t use fireworks if illegal where you live.
  • Keep fireworks away from children; they lose fingers, toes and eyes to fireworks accidents, and many are burned by even something as tame-seeming as sparkler — which burns at up to 2,000 degrees.
  • Never point fireworks at others.
  • Use fireworks outdoors on a flat, hard surface in an open area. Keep kids at least 30 feet away.
  • Use a flat, hard surface like a driveway. Avoid lighting fireworks on grass or in containers.
  • Wear eye protection.
  • Have a way to put out a fire handy — a fire extinguisher, hose, or bucket of water. Put used fireworks into a bucket of water.
  • Alcohol and fireworks do not mix.

Have a great and safe holiday celebration!

Sources and Credits


[azri] https://www.flickr.com/photos/azriadnan
[lara] https://www.michigan.gov/documents/lara/fireworks_381040_7.pdf
[det] http://detroit.about.com/od/halloweenattractions/a/Fireworks-In-Michigan.htm
[cprs] https://www.cpsc.gov/Global/Research-and-Statistics/Injury-Statistics/Fuel-Lighters-and-Fireworks/Fireworks_Report_2014.pdf
[nfpa] http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/by-topic/outdoors-and-seasonal/fireworks
[wired] http://www.wired.com/2011/07/diy-fireworks/
[freep] http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2015/08/07/sky-lantern-bans-fireworks/31318545/
[lantern] http://i1.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/incoming/article598099.ece/ALTERNATES/s615b/C_71_article_1366846_image_list_image_list_item_0_image.jpg
[umbrella] https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/f4/a3/04/f4a3048210f6c75157ddef924a91bbbe.jpg
[kids] http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/46534000/jpg/_46534570_fireworks2.jpg


Robert H. Bourdeau

Without risk, there are no rewards.But when taking risks, it's important to ask "is it worth it?" Most of us are not good at evaluating risk. That's why I love insurance. When you get it, you realize that you have a tool for making choices. We can put ourselves out there, enjoy life and strive for personal and financial growth. When we fail, insurance gives us a way to recover financially, and we learn to be better. I'm a lifelong student with degrees in mathematics and computer science, a licensed insurance producer, and hold professional insurance designations including CPCU, CIC, and CRM.I enjoy distance running, bicycling, craft beers, cool people, and taking risks.

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