Two natural disasters in one week? As a good friend of mine said the other day, I thought that I was getting away from bad weather when I moved here from Kansas. Nonetheless, Hurricane Irene struck Howard County with some driving rain over the last weekend of August. Fortunately, we did not lose power at my home, and aside from some impromptu trench digging to alleviate a giant puddle threatening to flood our patio, we did not have any hurricane related damage.
Others were not so lucky, with a few still without power as of Labor Day. A friend's neighbor in Silver Spring had a very large pine tree down in their yard. The uprooted tree pulled down power lines and left the neighborhood without electricity for days. Although in this instance the tree seemed to be contained on one property, the implications could have been entirely different had the tree fallen into an adjacent property.
In tort law, there is a concept called intervening force. Intervening force is when the acts of a third person intervene between the defendant's conduct and the plaintiff's injury. One type of intervening cause is known as an “act of God” or “force of nature”. Events, such as hurricanes, are frequently considered such acts. Sometimes, if an intervening force is great enough, it becomes a superseding force and the defendant's negligence is cut off from liability.
The circumstances are different if the defendant knew that there was a problem with his property. For example, In Kimble v. Macintosh Hemphill Co, a Pennsylvania case from 1948 where a negligently maintained roof collapsed in unusually high winds, the court ruled that “(o)ne who fails in his duty to remedy a defective or dangerous condition is liable for injuries resulting therefrom.” Similarly, if a landowner knows he has a damaged tree on his property, and the tree falls into the neighbor's property because of the damage, it is likely that he would have liability for the damage created by the tree.
Insurance policies create another wrinkle in hurricane damage. As the Baltimore Sun reported on September 2nd, filing an insurance claim for damage during the hurricane can result in insurers charging a hurricane deductible. However, this deductible can only be imposed if the location was under a hurricane warning. On the Western shore, only St. Mary's county was under a hurricane warning; the remaining counties under the warning are all located on the Eastern shore (Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary's, Talbots, Wicomico and Worcester). More information regarding insurance issues raised by Hurricane Irene can be found at the Maryland Insurance Administration website. They have provided a FAQ about weather related losses (link opens a .pdf file).
If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact our office.