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I am subleasing a room in a house in San Francisco. The landlord does not turn on the central heater ever, so I am running my space heater occasionally. In case of the unlikely event of a fire being caused by the space heater (e.g. forgetting to turn it off and a malfunction) and the worst case scenario the whole house burning down. Is there any liability that could arise towards me?

As far as my research goes:

  • A homeowners insurance which could cover these claims does not seem to be mandatory (and i don't know if the homeowner has one)
  • A renters insurance does typically only cover my personal belongings. (which i am able to cover myself out of pocket in the unlikely event)

Please note I am only talking about the unlikely event sth. happens in the house that would be traced back to me, e.g. leaving the stove or heater on PLUS a malfunction of the device which could cause a fire.

Would a personal 3rd party liability insurance / umbrella insurance cover these kind of cases?

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The truth is anyone can sue anyone for anything. So yes you could be sued, but the more important part to measure is the probability of success.

While this is probably more of a legal stack exchange question, in order for a successful suit there has to be proven at least some negligence on your part in the situation you cite. The very fact that the landlord is not willing to turn on the heat is probably enough to absolve you from any liability. Once you go down to a local store and purchase a UL certified heater then a suit would have a very low probability of success.

Perhaps a case could be made if you made your own heater and it burned down the house. But that would require finding a jury that is sympathetic to landlords that will not provide heat for their tenants (highly unlikely).

Could the landlord sue the heater company? Yes and would likely receive an out of court settlement.

Even in the case that liability can be proven on your part, it is very unlikely you would be targeted. These type of suits target "deep pockets" or those with wealth. Unless something is specifically known about you having a high level of net worth a civil suit will not be brought against a "room renter" because of the lack of funds. People in your demographic tend not to have a lot of money. (No offense intended, I was there myself once.)

In the case that you do have a high net worth, then get renters insurance and possibly an umbrella policy. It is a small price to pay to protect a significant amount of assets.

If I was in your shoes here is what I would do:

  1. Purchase a UL certified heater (less than $20 at Walgreens)
  2. I'd get renters insurance anyway, for about $180/year you get a whole lot of protection.
  3. For sure buy renter's insurance if you have net worth over 50K or soon will (like with stock options).
  4. Once your net worth is more than the liability an renter's policy will cover then you should consider a Umbrella policy. Again a whole lot of coverage for a little bit of money.
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    Great answer! Thx I just purchased a panel heater, that is UL certified. And yes i will get some additional insurance :) – Ben Marten Sep 12 '16 at 19:03
  • Just to add to this answer, you should have renter's insurance as a matter of course, because you want to insure against the loss of your own property, which can be worth more than you think. – heropup Sep 12 '16 at 19:27
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According to US News, renter's insurance does cover liability as well as your own belongings. They list this as one of four "myths" often promulgated about renter's insurance. This is backed up by esurance.com, which explicitly mentions "Property damage to others" as covered. Nationwide Insurance says that renter's insurance covers "Personal liability insurance for renters" and "Personal umbrella liability insurance". Those were the first three working links for "what does renters insurance cover" on Google.

In short, while it is possible that you currently have a different kind of coverage, this is not a limitation of renter's insurance per se. It could be a limitation in your current coverage. You may be able to simply change your coverage with your current provider. Or switch providers. Or you may already be covered.

Note that renter's insurance does not cover the building against general damage, e.g. tornado or a fire spreading from an adjacent building. It is specific to covering things that you caused. This may be the cause of the confusion, as some sources say that it doesn't cover anything in the building. That's generally not true. It usually covers all your liability except for specific exceptions (e.g. waterbed insurance is often extra).

  • Great answer, that makes it very clear! I will clarify with my insurance company as well. – Ben Marten Sep 12 '16 at 18:24
  • And the beauty thing is, that transforms it into a fight between two insurance companies. They are both well matched to each other and you're out of the fight. – Harper Sep 13 '16 at 3:49

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