If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, then it probably didn't result in an insurance claim.

Different story if a tree falls on your house or car.

The most recent winter storm in South Carolina resulted in thousands of tree-related insurance claims and about $15 million in damage to homes, according to the industry-financed S.C. Insurance News Service. It's not clear how many vehicles were damaged by trees.

So what happens if a tree falls and smashes your home? Or shed? Or car?

Case of the car

Whether it's your tree, a neighbor's tree, or a tree in the park, if it falls on your vehicle, it's an auto insurance claim. The claim would be covered under the "comprehensive" part of the policy, because you didn't hit the tree, the tree hit your car.

"It's typically treated as an 'act of God,' " said Russ Dubisky, executive director of the Columbia-based Insurance News Service.

Your car could be sitting in your driveway and get crushed by a neighbor's falling tree, and the cost would still fall to your auto comprehensive coverage - if you have it - and you would have to pay the out-of-pocket insurance deductible, unless ...

With insurance, there's usually an "unless ..." In this case, it's a question of whether the owner of the tree knew it was in danger of falling down, such as if you told them: "Hey, neighbor, I'm worried that the big dead tree in your front yard might fall on my car."

Ideally, you would have told them of your concerns in writing, although that doesn't always make for good neighbor relations. In such a circumstance, your car insurer could try and get the neighbor's homeowner's insurance to pay the claim, including your deductible.

House or outbuilding

As with vehicles, if a tree is downed in a storm and falls on your house, it doesn't matter whose tree it was, unless there's a question of fault.

Damage to a house or other structure would be covered by homeowner's insurance, with coverage kicking in after your out-of-pocket deductible.

Many policies also would pay at least a portion of the tree removal cost as part of a damage claim. If a tree falls on your property without damaging a structure, insurance typically would not pay for removal of the tree.

Insurance companies do have a reputation for hiking up people's premiums if they file a homeowner's insurance claim, so that's always worth considering. Dubisky said that, contrary to what many suspect, insurers won't change people's rates just for calling and asking about a potential claim.

"You won't be penalized unless you actually make a claim," he said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.