Yesterday, earthquakes rattled Costa Rica and Southern California and while, thankfully, no lives were reported lost in the California earthquake, the death toll from the Costa Rica quake has risen to fourteen as of today. People might wonder where they can turn in the event they or those they love are injured in an earthquake, or perhaps simply in the event their property is damaged. If they are going to look to the court system, it could be a tough row to hoe.
Just last month, a court in China rejected a lawsuit brought by more than 50 families of children who were killed when a school collapsed during China's huge earthquake in May of 2008. Their claims that poor construction and negligence by local officials were major contributors to schools' structural failures apparently fell on deaf ears and have fueled concerns regarding the government's investigation of the quake and its certification of building codes that failed.
Here in the United States, an earthquake is viewed by contract law as an "act of God", or something beyond people's capacity to control. Many general and homeowners insurance policies don't cover damages caused by acts of God, and specific coverage for certain disasters must be obtained separately. At times, disputes arise as to whether a violent storm or other disaster was an act of God or a foreseeable natural event, as was the case with some of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. However, a study conducted by the Insurance Information Network of California indicates that even a decade after California's Northridge earthquake caused more than $15 billion in insured losses, fewer than 15 percent of the state's homeowners carry earthquake insurance. With that in mind, is there another avenue for those injured in an earthquake to seek recovery?
In personal injury cases, an earthquake could lead to liability if the cause of a person's death was the foreseeable result of the negligence of a person or company. For example, if a building is not constructed up to code, and collapses during an earthquake, the builder will likely be found negligent and could be held liable for any personal injury. As a result, in places like California where seismic activity is a daily occurrence, builders should stay on top of the constantly evolving code standards. Finally, businesses and employers could also face liability for damages resulting from their failure to take reasonable and cost effective hazard mitigation and disaster preparedness actions prior to an earthquake.