Thanksgiving Disaster: An Insurance Guide

Thanksgiving Day is typically a chance to carve out some quality time to eat, drink and be merry with family and friends, but if your feast goes foul, knowing what your home insurance covers will help.

"All hosts should be aware that if someone drives drunk or becomes sick after consuming food at a holiday party, the host could actually be liable," Robert Rusbuldt, CEO of Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA), said in a written statement.

For protection, the Insurance Information Institute advises taking common-sense steps such as practicing perfect kitchen hygiene, and the IIABA says you should be aware of your state's "social host liability laws."

On the banquet front, keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say food-borne illnesses are responsible for about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year.

If a guest gets food poisoning, a typical homeowners insurance policy would likely cover the cost for a trip to an emergency room. If medical expenses incurred go beyond that, the guest could sue. 

Your homeowners insurance policy will generally protect you up to a minimum of $100,000 in liability coverage if anyone decides to take legal action, says Loretta Worters, III spokeswoman. "If your guest gets sick and sues you for damages, your insurer will pay for your legal expenses for a resulting lawsuit, even if the suit is groundless," she says.

Worters adds that you can buy extra coverage -- most agents suggest looking into carrying at least $300,000 to $500,000 of liability protection, depending on the value of your assets. The III also advises another $1 million in umbrella insurance coverage.

Worters explains that an umbrella policy takes effect when you've reached the limit on the underlying liability coverage in a homeowners, condo, renters or auto policy. "It will also cover you for things such as libel and slander," she says, adding that a $1 million umbrella policy can usually be bought for about $150 to $300 a year.

Deep-fry your turkey, not your holiday

State Farm says Christmas Day in 2013 for the first time surpassed Thanksgiving Day for the highest number of cooking-related fire claims, but even so, claims typically double on Thanksgiving compared with a typical November day.

Blame the deep fryer and the lure of a crispy turkey. Fryers result in about 1,000 emergency fire calls each year, says the National Fire Protection Association, causing about $15 million in damage each year.

  • More than a third of fires involving a fryer start in a garage or patio. Cook outdoors at a safe distance from any buildings or trees and keep the fryer off any wooden structures, like a deck or patio.
  • Avoid a hot oil spillover by first filling the pot with cold oil and then lower the thawed turkey into the pot to determine how much oil needs to be added or removed.
  • Shut off the fuel source or flame when adding the turkey to the hot oil to prevent a flare-up if oil does splash out.
  • Make sure your turkey is completely thawed and dry before lowering it slowly into the pot.
  • Never leave a hot turkey fryer unattended.
  • Don't use ice or water to cool down oil or put out an oil fire.
  • Keep an extinguisher approved for cooking or grease fire nearby.

Unattended cooking is the chief cause of fires, so:
    • Be on alert! If you are sleepy or have consumed alcohol don't use the stove or stove top.
    • Stay in the kitchen while you are frying, grilling, or broiling food. If you leave the kitchen for even a short period of time, turn off the stove.
    • If you are simmering, baking, roasting, or boiling food, check it regularly, remain in the home while food is cooking, and use a timer to remind you that you are cooking.
    • Keep anything that can catch fire - oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packaging, towels or curtains - away from your stove top.
    If you have a cooking fire:
    • Just get out! When you leave, close the door behind you to help contain the fire.
    • Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number after you leave.
    • If you try to fight the fire, be sure others are getting out and you have a clear way out.
    • Keep a lid nearby when you're cooking to smother small grease fires. Smother the fire by sliding the lid over the pan and turn off the stove top. Leave the pan covered until it is completely cooled.
    • For an oven fire turn off the heat and keep the door closed.

    Beyond home insurance -- practical steps to take

    A recent IIABA survey of 760 families found that about 75 percent admit serving food prepared by others, outside their home, during the holidays. Here's the IIABA's safety advice on various potential holiday pitfalls:

    Take the turkey's temperature: "Make sure that you check food and don't put anything out that you suspect may be undercooked, spoiled or contaminated," says the IIABA. "Use only reputable food purveyors (caterers, delis, the local pizza joint and family or friends). When in doubt, throw it out." Check the bird's temperature before serving -- it has to be cooked to an internal 165 degrees.

    Put a cap on cocktails: If you want a party atmosphere, plan activities that don't center on drinking. Also, provide "safe, filling food" to counteract the alcohol and provide non-alcoholic beverages. Also, know who the designated drivers are before time. Stop serving liquor, wine and beer an hour before the party is expected to end. And cut off any guests who are clearly drunk or getting there.

    Party elsewhere: To lower your liability, have the holiday dinner at a restaurant or bar that has a liquor license instead of a home or office. And call a cab for anyone who has had too much. Or get them a hotel room or let them sleep it off at your place.

    Know the law -- and your policy: Finally, the IIABA suggests learning just what the "social host liability" statutes are in your state to see exactly what you could be sued for. Reviewing your homeowners policy each year is also a good idea, especially if you've increased the value of your home and assets, according to the IIABA.

    A cornucopia of Thanksgiving stats compiled by the CDC:

    2.6 billion pounds --The total weight of sweet potatoes - another popular Thanksgiving side dish - grown by major sweet potato producing states in 2012. North Carolina (1.2 billion pounds) produced more sweet potatoes than any other state, followed by California, Mississippi and Louisiana.

    768 million pounds -- The forecast for U.S. cranberry production in 2012. Wisconsin was estimated to lead all states in the production of cranberries, with 450 million pounds, followed by Massachusetts (estimated at 210 million).New Jersey, Oregon and Washington were also estimated to have substantial production, ranging from 14 to 54 million pounds.

    242 million --The number of turkeys forecasted to be raised in the United States in 2013. That is down 5 percent from the number raised during 2012.

    45 million -- The forecast for the number of turkeys Minnesota will raise in 2013. The Gopher State was tops in turkey production, followed by North Carolina (35 million), Arkansas (29 million), Indiana (17 million), Missouri (17 million), and Virginia (16 million).

    6,500 -- Number of members of the Wampanoag American Indian tribal grouping, as of 2010, roughly half of whom reside in Massachusetts. The Wampanoag, the American Indians in attendance, played a lead role in this historic encounter, and they had been essential to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers' first year. The Wampanoag are a people with a sophisticated society who have occupied the region for thousands of years. They have their own government, their own religious and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture. They are also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life.

    98.3 percent -- Percentage of households with a television in 2011. No doubt, many guests either before, after, or perhaps even during the feast will settle in front of their TVs to watch some football.

    32 -- Number of counties, places and townships in the United States named Plymouth, as in Plymouth Rock, the landing site of the first Pilgrims. The two counties, both named Plymouth, are in Massachusetts (2012 population of 499,759) and Iowa (24,907 in 2012). Plymouth, Minn., is the most populous place, with 72,928 residents in 2012; Plymouth, Mass., had 57,463 that year.

    7 --  Number of places and townships in the United States that are named Cranberry or some spelling variation of the acidic red berry (e.g., Cranbury, N.J.), a popular side dish at Thanksgiving. Cranberry Township (Butler County), Pa., was the most populous of these places in 2012, with 28,832 residents. Cranberry township (Venango County), Pa., was next (6,608).

    4 -- Number of places in the United States named after the holiday's traditional main course. Turkey Creek, La., was the most populous in 2012, with 440 residents, followed by Turkey, Texas (415), Turkey, N.C. (295) and Turkey Creek, Ariz. (294). There are also two townships in Pennsylvania with "Turkey" in the name: Upper Turkeyfoot and Lower Turkeyfoot.