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The path of destruction runs deep: Responding to natural disasters

Queensland residents have certainly experienced their fair share of natural disasters.

In March 2017, Cyclone Debbie carved a path of destruction along almost the entire coastline. Our experience with these types of disasters does help to mitigate the damage. For the most part, we know to stock up on bottled water, keep off the roads, heed the warnings and not to underestimate the power of storms and floods, even days after the worst has passed.

Following these disasters, we see communities come together to support those in need and to rebuild their towns.

There is a true sense of camaraderie borne of these shared experiences.

However, once the initial response has passed, some cracks appear. A flood can cast up a whole host of legal issues, including:

  • Employers and employees’ uncertainty as to leave entitlements for those unable to get to work;
  • Businesses and individuals taking advantage of those unable to get to work;
  • Insurers drawing out the claims process to minimise the impact on their bottom line; and
  • Neighbours bringing claims against neighbours for building or landscaping works that may have increased the damage to neighbouring properties.

In the wake of the 2017 floods, it's important that we give consideration to all of these issues and how the law can provide clarity and security to those affected.

It's also important that people are aware of the law as it currently stands.

At this time, 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, 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. For this reason, local councils are, for the most part, not liable for any property damage or loss 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 promptly.

Hopefully, the law will resolve some of these difficulties in the near future for everyone’s benefit. In the meantime, it's important that as a community we play fair, have compassion and look after each other.

Shine Lawyers - Disaster recovery claims

If you've been impacted by a natural disaster and aren't quite sure what you're entitled to, Shine Lawyers' disaster recovery team is here to help. From insurance disputes to widespread property damage, our lawyers are experts when it comes to disaster recovery claims. Get in touch today for more information on how we can help you get your life back on track following a natural disaster.

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This is an abridged version of the article as it appears on the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: November 1, 2017.

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