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Are Earthquake-Related Injuries Compensable?
Recommendations for legal action following earthquake-related injuries.
Earthquakes cause death and injury in many different ways. Epidemiological studies report causes of death from a wide variety of accidents induced by an earthquake, including road traffic accidents, and incidents with overturning items like heavy furniture or equipment. Lacerations from broken glass are a common injury. Some people suffer cardiac arrests from the shock of the earthquake. Most of the injuries treated after an earthquake are soft-tissue injuries, wounds, contusions, and blunt trauma.
When people get hurt during an earthquake, are those injuries covered under the law? From a legal standpoint, an earthquake is a cause outside the control of the parties, and in normal circumstances, an injury arising from an earthquake is non-compensable.
However, in situations such as the following, injuries may be found to be compensable.
Building collapse and workers' compensation
Building collapse or damage is the primary cause of injury from earthquakes. When damaged, different types of buildings inflict injuries to varying degrees of severity and in different ways. Suffocation due to vast amounts of dust generated from a damaged building is a primary cause of death in many building collapse victims. Asphyxia can also occur from extreme pressures of materials on the chest.
Extreme injuries that occur in a small number of victims from the impact of building materials or other hard objects include head injuries, the severe crushing of the thorax and abdomen, or the amputation of limbs by extreme pressure.
If a building collapses due to an earthquake, an employee performing services in that building might be injured, might suffer a heart attack or post-traumatic stress. Employment doesn't cause these types of injuries; therefore, the employer is generally not held liable.
However, if there was a causal connection between the injury and the employment which originated in a risk connected with the employment, as an example, if it were found that the building had defective construction, an injury claim would be compensable.
The earthquake may have contributed to the injury, but it was not the only cause. The intervention of a human agency, the defective building, placed the employee in harm's way and a particular risk was created greater than that to which the public generally in that vicinity was subject. This could mean the employment was the proximate cause of injury.
In another example, a truck driver for a dairy was loading milk into his vehicle in the employer's garage when an earthquake occurred, and a brick wall of an adjoining building fell through the employer's roof. The driver's injuries were lacerations from broken glass from the milk bottles. The California Supreme Court found the injury compensable under workers' compensation, reasoning that the broken bottle injured him, therefore, out of employment and not by the earthquake.
Also, an employee's injury claim made after he was thrown from the top bunk of a bunk bed during an earthquake was found compensable because the bunk bed was not anchored to keep it from moving.
Here's another situation: an employee was killed during an earthquake when a roof collapsed on him, and after engineering testimony, it was determined that the building was fit and safe; therefore, the death was not compensable.
Not every employee who is injured at work during a destructive earthquake will be covered. But many will, especially if the earthquake is just the start of a chain reaction that then involves injury from their equipment or tools.
Building failures and civil injury liability
Individuals other than employees injured in a business building during an earthquake, for example, by falling bricks, are entitled to seek personal injury remuneration from that business's insurance or in court and can be awarded compensation if the property owners were negligent in making sure the building is safe.
In a case in Southern California, a court held a store liable for the deaths of two women who were crushed by falling bricks and plaster as they tried to escape a store during a 6.5 magnitude quake. Their families sued the property owners who, in turn, said that they were in compliance with the law and the earthquake was an act of God. Ultimately, the jury awarded nearly $2 million to the families after finding the property owners negligent for failing to make the building safer. An appeals court confirmed the ruling, noting that merely complying with city law would not insulate an owner from liability where they negligently failed to retrofit the building.
While earthquake injury or fatality cases had settled in the past, this particular case created case law used to help support future claims.
Other parties whose actions lead to injuries have been energy companies, construction companies, architects, electricians, and municipal authorities. For example, the Supreme Court in Oklahoma cleared the way for lawsuits against energy companies based on claims that their actions caused an earthquake that resulted in injury. Of course, the list of potential defendants is far from complete as each tragedy has its own unique story and circumstances.
However, as a California personal injury lawyer, I make sure to let my clients know: "directly dealing with insurance companies can be tricky due to the unfamiliar legal roadblocks they are sure to place in your path." When pursuing claims for earthquake-related injuries people will usually need guidance on what to document and how to proceed and personal injury lawyers are here to help.
For more information visit https://www.jobrienlaw.com/
John M. O'Brien & Associates