As Tropical Storm Alex enters the Gulf of Mexico, on course for landfall in Texas or Mexico later this week, Texas Gulf Coast residents prepare for what could be an active hurricane season - from now until November 30.
Richard M. Alderman, UH Law Center associate dean for academic affairs recently discussed the legal issues that arise when hurricanes make landfall. Alderman dispelled a common misconception regarding liabilities and responsibilities when trees fall and damage property. Professor Alderman regularly appears on radio and television, offering advice to common questions as "The People's Lawyer." Members of the media may reach him at 713-743-2165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What are some of the more common legal issues that arise following damaging storms and hurricanes?
Alderman: As you can imagine, when there's something like a hurricane, there are going to be all sorts legal issues: your house has been damaged, your tree has fallen on to the neighbor's yard, your fence is gone, your car has been destroyed. This leads to all sorts of questions about insurance issues: what can you recover from your insurance company and what should you do if you have problems? It also leads to issues between neighbors: am I responsible for the tree that's in my neighbor's yard and the damage to my neighbor's property? A lot of the issues that spin off from that - I don't have my car so I can't get to work, and do I have any right to get paid or can I lose my job because I didn't show up? I don't have any electricity, so I will go buy a generator and what happens when somebody charges me too much? I think you take all of the legal issues that exist day-to-day and just compress them into a small period of time and make them much more extreme.
Q: What does the law say about the fallen tree issue, and who holds responsibility for damage?
Alderman: The tree issue is one of the most common questions I will get after a hurricane. The law is not what people think it is. When your tree is blown down due to an act of God, you don't have any liability for that. Your tree may be on your neighbor's car or in your neighbor's yard, but you are not responsible for the damage that occurred. That's why it's so important that we all have our own insurance. On the other hand it is your tree that is in their yard, so you are responsible for getting the tree out of there. It doesn't matter how it got there, you still have to get it out, but you are not responsible for the damage that occurred.
Q: What should people know about price gouging and their consumer rights?
Alderman: Price gouging is illegal. You cannot charge more simply because there's been an event like a hurricane that allows you to do that. Knowing your legal rights is one thing, knowing how to assert them is another. Texas small claims court jurisdiction is now $10,000. It is relatively easy to use, but you usually don't have to go to small claims court. Usually, once the other side knows that you know your legal rights, all of the sudden they start negotiating a little bit better and now, all of the sudden, they want to resolve the issue to keep a customer.
Q: We are still hearing about legal issues related to Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Why is this still an issue two years later?
Alderman: At the UH Law Center - Center for Consumer Law we received a grant about eight months ago to help with continuing Hurricane Ike problems. We are still helping people resolve problems, and a lot of them are insurance. If I had the chance to talk to people directly, I'd say, "Here's what you ought to do: look at your insurance policies, read what they say, read what they cover, make sure you have flood insurance, make sure you have windstorm insurance, make sure you have all of the personalized liabilities and personal property insurance that you need."
When a problem arises, don't assume the first time you talk with someone it's going to be everything you want. It becomes a negotiation process, and you have to know where you stand legally. In Texas you have to know ‘bad faith.' If the insurance company doesn't deal with you in good faith - if they know they are liable and don't take reasonable steps to pay - they can be responsible for a lot of money in damages. Sometimes using magic words like, "it doesn't seem to me you are dealing with me in good faith," you will see their ears perk up. Sometimes it takes a lawsuit and sometimes it takes the assistance of the attorney. Every person needs to make that decision based on their own situation legally, knowing what you are entitled to and what you aren't.
Q: With insurance specifically, what do you need to understand about your policy?
Alderman: Some insurance companies deal in replacement costs - that means if you lose something you get to buy a new one. You can buy the same thing, no matter what it costs. Other policies give you the value of what you lost. If you lose a chair that is two or three years old, it's not worth very much today. If all you have is the value, then that is what you will receive. If you have replacement costs, you will get what it cost to buy a new chair. Reading the policy is probably the most important thing when it comes to insurance.
Q: Are there any other common misconceptions that you see regarding hurricane-related legal issues?
Alderman: Yes. There is a misconception in what people are entitled to when there's been damages. People have to be realistic. If you lose something and it costs $5,000 and they give you the $5,000 to replace it, that's usually all you are entitled to. The fact that you may have been inconvenienced a little, the fact that something may have hurt a little, the fact that you were a little upset - the law doesn't usually give you a lot of money for that. People think there's a pot at the end of the rainbow, and all you need is a lawsuit. That is not the law, and it has never been the law.
Q: What can people do to better inform themselves of their rights?
Alderman: When there is an event like a hurricane, it disrupts the lives of so many people in so many ways. It disrupts your personal life. It disrupts your professional life. The law deals with all of those questions - for example you have a contract to complete a job but you can't get to the job. What's your liability? What's your liability for people overcharging you for damage that was caused? All of these are things that the law has had centuries to think about. The legislature has had a lot of time. There really is a lot of specific law that people need to know about. You don't want to go out there yelling and screaming at somebody when you are wrong. I think the most important thing - know your rights.
There are websites. I have a website: www.peopleslawyer.net. I answer questions. I have material. Inform yourself and pay attention to the media when it comes to hurricanes.
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