Easter Sunday brought a very unexpected surprise to many parts of Arizona, including the Valley. At first it felt like a large truck was driving by, but when the window blinds began to sway and the water in the pool began to make waves, everyone in my house started to look at each other in amazement: I think we're having an earthquake!
According to the local news, we were right. A 7.2 magnitude quake struck in Baja California, less than an hour's drive from Yuma. Despite being over 200 miles away, Phoenix felt the tremors.
Earthquakes aren't exactly unheard of in Phoenix, but we've felt only 2 in the last 10 years. Despite seeming rare, earthquakes pose a significant risk considering how widespread they can reach (yesterday's quake, for example, could be felt by over 10 million people). This led me to think about how the law accounts for natural disasters and how your rights are affected by rare phenomena such as earthquakes.
Here is what I mean. Let's say you are at a gas station. In an otherwise normal situation, your safety is protected by the law at that gas station. The reason is that an individual in Arizona is protected from known or discoverable dangers when they enter the premises of a business. (For more on that, see our recent blog post titled "A Hazardous To Your Health Center?"). But what would happen if, while you were at the gas station, an earthquake occurred and you suffered injury as a result of something breaking or falling?
Would you have any rights? Would the gas station still be liable?
The gas station and its attorneys would assert a defense called “act of God”. That means, that natural disasters are unforeseeable and unpreventable, and therefore, given that the gas station and its owners didn’t do anything “wrong”, that it is not liable for your injuries or damages.
However, the question must be asked---was it truly unforeseeable and unpreventable?
We know earthquakes can and will happen. Although rare, we know they will at times rock the Valley of the Sun. Don’t the owners, architects, planners, designers, and engineers have a responsibility to take these potential “acts of God’ into account--before and when they build?
The simple answer is, “YES”. The bigger questions are 1) to what extent and 2) would such have been sufficient to prevent the injury or damage?
Believe it or not, accidents like this do in fact happen. And they don't need to occur at the epicenter of a quake; they can be hundreds of miles away. Actually, it need not be a quake at all--just think about the powerful winds during Arizona's monsoon season.
This is a very interesting and complex scenario, and it illustrates why an experienced lawyer is essential in navigating all the circumstances that come into play. Most of the time, you and the business you are visiting will not be expecting a natural disturbance to ruin your day. For most of us, fortunately, the rattle of a distant earthquake like yesterday's will mean nothing more than a good story--and a reminder of how nice it is to live in a relatively quake-free area like the Valley.