How to Avoid Being Scammed By a Tree Service

Tree Removal

Many people are unaware that the tree industry is one of the most dangerous professions (including police and firefighting work). Because of the nature of working near live power lines, at extreme heights and with dangerous tools, tree work carries a heavy risk of serious injury and death. For your protection and peace of mind, it is essential that you understand how your tree service is working not only to protect the health of your trees, but to protect you from potential liabilities.

Common Misconceptions about Tree Service

Misconception # 1: All Insurance is created equal.

Fact: Insurance in the tree industry is very expensive, especially workers’ compensation.  Companies often do not carry proper insurance to protect you from liability, and some will stretch the truth to convince you everything is covered when they are under insured and many are unaware of what coverage is needed.

Remember, where a lot of money is involved, there is a lot of motivation to bend the truth. Do your own research and get certificates of insurance directly from the insurance company. No one should ever be offended or hesitant when you ask for proof of insurance!
It is much cheaper simply to print “fully insured, workers’ compensation and liability insurance” on a card or ad than it is to buy coverage. This deception is made especially easy and profitable because very few customers actually check to see if insurance is in place until after an accident happens. Please do your homework and ask your lawyer.

Insurance Definitions:

Workers’ Compensation is the most expensive and the most necessary insurance. It covers injuries that tree company employees or owners suffer at work. This is the only real protection you can have from the liability of someone being injured while working on your property. There is no substitute for it!

Without workers’ comp, tree companies are still legally required to take responsibility for work injuries, but you—the property owner—are next in line. If you hire a contractor who has no workers’ compensation, you must pay the bill if an employee is injured and the owner can’t pay it all. You may sue the contractor to recover damages, but meanwhile you have to pay for the injured person’s medical bills, lost wages and other costs associated with the injury. Needless to say, it’s no fun.

Workers’ comp tricks to watch out for:

  • Some tree contractors claim they do not need workers’ comp because they have fewer than five employees. It is true that the law doesn’t require workers’ comp for non-construction businesses with less than five employees. But that will come as little comfort when liability bounces straight to you after the company owner is or claims to be unable to pay for the injury of a worker.
  • Another myth you may hear is that workers’ comp is not needed if the owner is the only employee. If the owner is injured and can’t pay, you are just as liable. Additionally, no one should ever do tree work alone, as this greatly increases the chance of severe injury or death.
  • One trick is to carry workers’ comp on only one employee working at least 20 hours a week. This saves a tree company huge amounts if it employs several workers because workers’ comp premiums are based on pay role. A valid insurance certificate is meaningless if most employees are being paid “under the table” as subcontractors with no insurance.

General Liability Insurance protects the customer’s property. It would pay, for example, to repair the damage if a tree fell on your house. General liability covers neither injuries suffered by tree workers nor accidents involving any on-road vehicle. For instance, if someone fell from a tree and broke his back on your property, general liability offers no protection. (Some policies do have a rider covering $5,000 of on-the-job injuries. But as you probably know, a single visit to the emergency room can far exceed $5,000.) Also, if someone were to back a truck into your house or collapse your septic tank, general liability would be of no help.

Bonded: A bond is a written guarantee backed by a financial institution to ensure a job will be completed. Bonding is generally used only for large projects such as contracts with TDOT or utility companies. For a bond to mean anything, the customer must have a valid copy of it. If a company claims to be bonded but does not give you a copy of it for your specific job, being “bonded” offers you no protection at all.

Automobile Insurance covers damages resulting from accidents involving on-road vehicles of any kind. Commercial auto insurance has exclusions for auto accident injuries to employees or owners at work, since workers’ comp is designed to cover these injuries. This can be important to remember if someone has an accident involving a truck on your property.

Fully Insured: The phone book will have many advertisements with the term “fully insured.” What does it mean? More often than not, it means a tree company does not have the insurance you need and doesn’t want you to ask many questions. You must ask, however, because “fully insured” can easily mean absolutely nothing.

Besides understanding the insurance terms, don’t forget to finish your homework:

  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the business has received complaints, and how the problems were rectified.
  • Get reference checks on the tree company in question. Reputable businesses should be willing to provide you with customer references.
  • Always deal directly with the insurance company that underwrites the policy. Never rely on the tree company’s copy of a certificate. Some pay only the first payment on their insurance policies and let them expire, passing off copies of the expired certificate as valid.

Example Tree Accident Case:
Two tree workers are removing a tree in your backyard one of them gets in the truck and pulls it and the trailer behind it forward, he does not see that the other worker is between the truck and trailer.  When he pulls forward the employee behind the truck is knocked over and crushed by the trailer. In a panic the driver backs up and hits the brick wall of the house doing $2000.00 of damage to it.

Who pays?
The owner of this company only has the truck and trailer as his assets which are worth $8,000.00.  He rents his house and has no savings or retirement.  The company does not have auto insurance or workers commensuration but does have general labiality insurance. General liability insurance will not cover any of the costs of the accident because it involves an on the road vehicle.  The hospital bills for the injured employee total $35,000.00, lost wages total $20,000.00 and the repair of the wall is $2000.00 for a total bill of $57,000.00.

  1. This is what will most likely happen; the home owner will get the following letters in the mail:
    A letter from the general liability company explaining that they are not responsible for the damage done to the wall because the accident involved an automobile.
  2. A letter from the home owners own home insurance company stating that they will not pay for any damages done to the house or any of the medical bills associated with the accident, because the home owner was responsible for making sure the tree company had all the proper insurance before the job was started.  In most cases home owner insurance policies do not protect home owner from this liability, most policies will state that it is your responsibility to check and confirm that companies you hire to work on your property have liability insurance and worker compensation insurance.  If you fail to do this you are responsible for any damages done to your property or injuries that occur during the course of work.
  3. A letter from the lawyer for the injured employee stating that the owner of the company has filed bankruptcy and has only paid $3000.00 toward the employee’s injuries and that a court date has been set for a civil suit to collect the reaming $54,000.00 plus legal fees.  It should also be noted that there is very little defense to this type of law suit.

If the tree company had auto insurance, then the wall that was damaged would have been covered.  If the company had workers’ compensation in place then the employees injures and lost wages would have been covered.  This would mean that the home owner would not have been financially liable for the accident.

Misconception #2: It’s all about price

Some prices are simply too good to be true. Customers should be cautious of companies that get business based on always having the cheapest price. More often than not, they are not paying insurance premiums or properly training employees. This means they are more likely to have accidents and less likely to have insurance. Often the difference in cost is workers’ compensation; this is one corner you cannot afford to cut.

Consider this:
It is easy to get jobs—just submit the lowest bid, and cut corners to make a profit. But…
If you’re always the cheapest, it’s nearly impossible to get repeat business because few if any customers are satisfied! (You can forget about referrals, too.)

Dement Tree Service offers the best tree care rather than the cheapest. While competitive quotes are still a goal, quality work is far better than a bargain price for a job that damages your property, trees, and financial well-being.

Misconception #3:  I should wait as long as possible before having my trees pruned or fertilized

The longer you wait to have your trees professionally cared for, the more structurally unsound they can become. Trees in urban areas form bad habits that must be corrected as they grow to prevent them from becoming weak or hazardous. Urban trees do not normally get proper nutrition in proper amounts from urban soils, and various insects and diseases are invited into your landscape by less-than-vigorous trees. The healthier your trees and plants, the less insect and disease problems occur in your yard. Mature trees should be checked annually for unseen internal decay to avoid tree failure, which can damage property and injure or kill people.

Misconception #4: Trees do fine in the forest. Shouldn’t they do just as well in my yard if I leave them alone?

Unfortunately, your yard is not a forest. Important differences are…

Trees in the forest regularly discard dying and decayed limbs. No one is usually there, so no one is harmed. You do not want this to happen in your yard.

In nature, prairie land has no trees and the forest has no grass! Turf roots rob tree feeder roots of nutrients and water. This is why trees produce more dangerous or dead limbs in urban areas, and such limbs must be removed regularly.

In a yard, sod and plants compete for nutrition. They need help. Urban soils are regularly compacted by human activities, lawn irrigation and top soil additions. Compacted soils (such as near construction sites) need to be aerated to allow for adequate oxygen, nutrient and water exchange.
Yard trees need to be regularly trained and pruned. Trees always develop more limbs when they grow without trees surrounding and competing with them. So many heavy limbs make it very easy for a tree to be damaged in a storm. Tree canopies also need to be raised for safety concerns such as driveway visibility.

Misconception #5: One tree service and its methods are just as good as another’s.

That would make it easy and simple, but it just isn’t true. In Virginia, there is no requirement to be met before one can claim to be a professional arborist. It seems that if you can spell it, you can claim to be one. A professional arborist is generally recognized if he or she is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). In many ways, the ISA certificate is like a degree in tree care. Ask to see a copy of the certificate.

Also, you should ask about your tree contractor’s knowledge of nationally recognized pruning standards, A-300. You may even request a copy. If company seems unfamiliar familiar with these standards, you probably want to look elsewhere. Bad pruning and over-pruning (such as tree topping) kills more trees than any other tree care mistakes. Improper fertilization or pruning too much or at the wrong time can also make trees need pruning more often and lead to an increase in insects.

Thinking about having trees pruned, fertilized, removed or replaced? Here are some recommendations:

Recommendation #1: List your objectives.

Do you want only dead and diseased limbs removed, or do you also want long-term training of the limb structure? Do you need pruning and limb training to reduce limb interference with a home or an out building? How about cosmetic pruning to open a view? Raising the canopy to increase sunlight below a tree? How exactly do you want the end result to look?

Recommendation #2: Require the company to be a participant in the Virginia Drug Free Workplace program.

20% of young workers admit using marijuana on the job.
1/3 of employees know of the illegal sale of drugs in their workplace.
Nearly 70% of current users of illegal drugs are employed.
Nearly 1 in 4 employed Americans between the ages of 18 – 35 have illegally used drugs.
How safe can it be to have a possible drug addict cutting tree limbs over your roof?

Recommendation #3: Ask questions!

The way to learn about a company is to ask specific questions and listen carefully to the answers.

  1. What training have you had in tree care?
  2. Are you certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)?
  3. Are the people you send to do the work regularly trained in safety and proper tree care techniques? How?
  4. Do your employees wear identifying uniforms to let me know who should be on my property?
  5. Does your company allow employees to use tree spikes at any time to climb trees to be trimmed? (These can seriously harm trees by causing infections.)
  6. Do you require adherence to nationally recognized A-300 pruning standards, and may I have a copy?
  7. Do you advertise or suggest topping trees? (If the answer is “yes,” run from this company, unless it only tops for temporary safety or under utility lines).
  8. Does your company suggest leaving the brush by the street for the city to pick up? (The city will not pick up brush left by contractors; this can result in fines and an increased cost of brush disposal. Often when this happens the tree company has already been paid and is nowhere to be found.)
  9. Do you have general liability and workers’ compensation insurance to cover employees? WILL YOU  HAVE YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY SEND ME A COPY?
  10. Can I get pictures of some of your tree pruning jobs?
  11. Do you require any payment in advance? (Do not do it. Do not pay anything until the job is finished!)
  12. Is the contact number for your company connected to a physical address? (This is easy to check by calling 1-411. If no address can be found, there will most likely be no way to find the company if something goes wrong.)
  13. Does your company drug test on a regular basis, and are you a member of the Virginia Drug Free Workplace?

Recommendation #5: Ask for a specific price quotation in writing.

Once you’re satisfied that you’re working with an honest, competent professional, invite him or her to your home and get a quote. A written quotation gives you the assurance of exactly what your job will cost—no surprises. Beware of “job estimates.” They can go up.

Recommendation #6: Know and avoid scam attempts you may encounter.

Here are three common scams.

A tree contractor asks to be paid when your job is half done because he needs to get a chainsaw fixed. What do you do? Often, fly-by-night companies will get one job in a neighborhood by knocking on doors and giving extremely low prices. Once they get the first job, word of mouth travels, so the company gets more jobs in the neighborhood. The company will halfway do several jobs and ask to be paid early for equipment repairs or some other reason. All the jobs will then be left unfinished and the company will be long gone.

One of the most common scams is to simply print “insured” on a business card and not actually have insurance. Ask every business to provide you with a certificate of insurance from their insurance company and you will be surprised at how many will not have any, or will only have general liability and no more.

You have heard about businesses getting scammed by a new employee who suffers a severe back injury while picking up a piece of paper the first day of work. The company is forced to give workers’ comp and pay for lost wages, etc. unless it can prove that the injury was preexisting. The same thing can happen to you if you hire an unscrupulous tree contractor. You may have to prove that a ridiculous injury did not occur while he was working on your property. This can be nearly impossible to do, and you may end up paying the medical bills for someone who got injured in a drunken brawl the night before.

Numerous other scams cost customers thousands every year. Some are not as blatant as the above, but they can be equally as costly to the health of your trees.

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