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IHOP Sinkhole Swallows Cars. Who's Liable?

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on November 10, 2015 7:50 AM

The tables were turned at a new International House of Pancakes in Mississippi this weekend when a sinkhole in the restaurant parking lot swallowed 14 or more cars. The restaurant just opened, NBC News reported.

The earth opening up and swallowing stuff sounds like a nightmare. But obviously sinkholes do happen in waking life. And when they do, victims may have recourse with a lawsuit. In the case of the new IHOP in Meridian, Mississippi it seems very likely indeed that legal action is in the offing.

Only Mud Underneath

Meridian patrol lieutenant Rita Jack told NBC News that on Saturday evening they heard reports of cars sinking into the IHOP parking lot. "When we arrived on scene, 14 to 15 vehicles that we could see had fallen roughly 30 feet into the ground. We expect that there may be more and that they may fall further into the ground because there is only mud underneath."

Jack described the sinkhole. "[It] is huge," said Jack. "If you imagine a football field cut in half, it is every bit of 50 feet wide and about 100 to 125 feet wide ... It is very scary. We are so fortunate that no injuries were sustained."

Who Can Be Sued for Sinkholes?

In a situation like the one in Mississippi, where the restaurant is new, it can be assumed that there is a recent real estate deal to review. Did owners and agents make all required disclosures?

In some states where sinkholes occur relatively frequently, like Florida, disclosing them is required by law. Even states that do not have explicit language about sinkholes in their statutes demand that known defects to the land be discussed before a deal is struck. There may be contract and torts claims aimed at different parties to the deal.

Meanwhile, if the land's vulnerability was known to the IHOP owner, or should have been, the restaurant will be liable to customers who lost their cars to the appetite of the earth. In that case, the victims will sue for negligence.

Who exactly is liable for a sinkhole depends on how it occurred, who is suing, and their relationships to each other and the land. As we all know, things happen. Sometimes that applies to sinkholes too. Natural sinkhole victims may have no one to sue.

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