The path of destruction runs deep
27th Jul 2017
Queensland residents have certainly experienced their fair share of natural disasters. In March 2017, Cyclone Debbie carved a path of destruction and flooding along almost the entire coastline. Our experience with these types of disasters does help to mitigate the damage to an extent. For the most part, we know to stock up on bottled water, canned food and batteries, to keep off the roads, to heed the warnings and not to underestimate the awesome power of storms and floods, even days after the worst appears to have passed.
Following these disasters, we see communities come together to offer their support to those in need and to rebuild their towns once again. There is a true sense of camaraderie borne of these shared experiences.
However, once the initial response has passed, we can start to see some cracks appear. A flood can cast up a whole host of legal issues, including:
- Employers and employees’ uncertainty as to leave with or without pay entitlements for those unable to get to work;
- Businesses and individuals taking advantage of others unable to get to work;
- Insurers drawing out the claims process to minimise the impact on their bottom line;
- Neighbours bringing claims against neighbours for building or landscaping works that may have increased the damage to neighbouring properties, or raising council complaints with the rebuild; and
- Residents being injured or property being damaged as a result of fallen trees and debris, potholes, newly exposed hazards and other changes to the landscape.
In the wake of the 2017 floods, it is important that we give consideration to all of these issues and how the law can provide clarity and security to those affected. It is also important, however, that people are aware of the law as it currently stands.
As at the time of writing, there is no legal allowance made for natural disasters when it comes to going to work or fulfilling contractual obligations. If someone is unable to attend work due to a natural disaster, then their employer is not obliged to pay. If an important deadline is missed, with delivery of goods or a service, for example, then it can be deemed a breach of contract.
Property insurance is governed by the individual insurance policy that was in place at the time of the disaster. Impacted policy holders will need to dig out that 100-page policy document that they may or may not have read when they first signed it. Any exclusions or exceptions, any conditions or limitations, any prerequisites or qualifiers will all apply, and will determine whether or not insurance will cover their losses.
With regard to neighbourhood issues, council approval for any changes to the land or buildings is essential to help protect homeowners from factors that inadvertently increased the risk or damage to a neighbour.
Finally, care needs to be taken when moving around hazards in impacted areas. Local councils are limited in their resources, which can delay their ability to assess the damage caused to roads, parks and footpaths and rectify same. For this reason, local councils are, for the most part, not liable for any property damage or injuries incurred as a result of natural disasters and the damage that remains. Extra diligence is required when navigating affected areas and councils should be notified of hazards so that they can address them before injuries occur.
It is hoped that the law will resolve some of these difficulties in the near future for everyone’s benefit. In the meantime, it is important that as a community we play fair, have compassion and look after each other.
Solicitor Michelle Wright has spent much of her legal career in the field of personal injury litigation and has a particular interest in assisting clients who have sustained psychiatric injuries from incidents at work or on the road. She is a member of the Queensland Law Society, the Australian Lawyers Alliance, the Women’s Lawyers Association of Queensland and the Logan and Scenic Rim Law Association and works in a variety of volunteer programs to ensure that everyone is given equal access to essential legal advice.
This article was originally published on Michelle's blog, P.I. Case Note.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).