April 5, 2012

Insurance Claims: What Happens When Lightning Strikes Your Car or House?

By Neil Bartlett, InsWeb.com

We've feared lightning for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, for example, thought Zeus, the king of all the gods, threw lightning bolts down from the heavens to express his anger at the people below. Although we don't view lightning that way today, lightning still must be taken seriously. The Insurance Information Institute calls lightning strikes an underrated killer. Because strikes are so common – with more 16 million lightning storms and 30 million lightning strikes to the ground in a year – there's a tendency to not take the threat seriously.

Covering the damage

If your car or house is struck by lightning, will insurance cover the damage? The short answer: Yes.

If you carry optional comprehensive coverage on your car, the damage is covered. If a lightning strike occurs, your car's electrical system may be harmed even if there isn't any obvious damage, such as burn marks. Lightning can reach temperatures approaching 54,000 degrees.

"Cars are hit every year," says meteorologist John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist at the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine. No statistics are available on how many cars are struck.

Although there are no statistics available regarding how often lightning damages cars, vehicle fires accounted for 1 percent of lightning fires from 2004 to 2008, according to an analysis by the National Fire Protection Association. When a car is hit by lightning, the most common damage is done to outside antennas, steel-belted radial tires and components of a vehicle's electrical system.

As for a lightning strike that damages your house, your home insurance would cover that. According to the Insurance Information Institute, homeowners filed more than 213,000 lightning-related claims at a cost of more than $1 billion in 2010. The average claim was $4,846. Common damage includes fires and damage to elcctrical systems. Close to 7 percent of all property and casualty insurance claims are related to lightning strikes.

The chances of a home in the United States being struck by lightning are 1 in 200. Florida tops the list of states for lightning strikes, followed in descending order by Texas, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia. Thunderstorms, which produce lightning, are most likely to occur in the early afternoon in June, July and August.

Outdoors: The worst place to be

If you're indoors during a thunderstorm with lightning, you'll want to stay put.

"It's never safe to be outside when lightning is in the area," says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.

And don't be fooled – lightning can strike even when the skies are clear. "The safest strategy is to move indoors whenever you hear thunder," Salvatore says. "That sound is saying you're within striking distance."

Out of harm's way

If you're in your house and you experience a lightning strike, it's wise to get out of the home, go to a neighbor's house and call the fire department.

What should you do if you're in your car during a thunderstorm? First, be thankful. Experts cite two safe places to be: inside a large enclosed building and in a car.

When lightning strikes a metal vehicle, that outer surface absorbs most of the electricity. Kim Loehr, communications director at the Lightning Protection Institute, explains that electrical currents are carried mainly on the outside of material like copper and aluminum and metal. This is known as the "skin effect."

When you're inside your car, here are several things to do to minimize contact with lightning:

  • Be careful what you do and do not touch. Stay away from anything with electrical or metal connections to the outside of the vehicle. This includes door and window handles.
  • Don't open the windows or stick your hand out a window.
  • If you're driving, safely pull over to the side of the road. Turn your emergency blinkers on, turn your engine off, put your hands in your lap and wait the storm out. Loehr says it's smart to wait half an hour before getting out of your car, since lightning isn't always seen but can still pose a danger. "Staying in the car is safer than leaving the car and waiting outside," she says.

Request a free car insurance comparison →