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5 unusual natural disaster lawsuits

As we start to see litigation around Hurricane Sandy, we take a look back at bizarre lawsuits of disasters past

 

The disaster wrought by Hurricane Sandy has left many communities devastated, and, as with any event of this scale, lawsuits came nipping at its heels. New Jersey is suing seven gas stations and a hotel, accusing them of gouging prices by as much as 59 percent during the aftermath of the storm. A resident of Tarrytown, N.Y. filed a case against power company Con Edison for not restoring power sooner after Sandy.

Time will tell how these and more cases shake out as victims of the storm begin to rebuild, but in the meantime, we thought we’d take a look at some of the more bizarre litigation that has arisen from natural disasters in the past.

Bracelet Bungle

After the undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, pop singer Lady Gaga designed charity bracelets to benefit the victims of the disaster, and sold them to her fans.

1800LAWFIRM, a legal network based in Michigan, was not convinced, however, that her claim that “all proceeds will be donated to Japan’s earthquake” was true, and filed a $5 million lawsuit against the star in June 2011. The suit claimed she overcharged for the bracelets, and earned a profit through the $4.79 shipping cost.

The parties reached a settlement on June 25, under which Lady Gaga agreed to donate more than $100,000 to a charity that helps victims of the Japan tragedy, but denied that the suit had any merit to begin with.

Deity Defendant

It’s not uncommon for people to lash out at God after a natural disaster, but Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers took his beef to court. His lawsuit against the higher power reads: “defendant directly and proximately has caused, inter alia, fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornados, pestilential plagues..." Chambers reasoned that he was able to sue God because “[the] defendant, being omnipresent, is personally present in Douglas County."

However, this suit wasn’t really about the natural disasters. Chambers filed it as a response to other senators trying to pass laws that limit the filing of frivolous lawsuits. As he told KPTM Fox 42, he wanted to prove that “anyone can sue anyone they choose, even God."

Snowstorm Suit

Apparently lawsuits involving the Supreme Being are more common than you’d think. This next case, though, didn’t name God as a defendant; instead, the 1962 suit centered on the definition of an “act of God.”

The plaintiffs in the case—Harry, Benjamin and William Goldberg—owned a Pennsylvania warehouse located next to a two-story garage. When the garage’s roof collapsed after a heavy snowstorm, bringing the warehouse down with it, the plaintiffs sued. The garage owners won an initial jury trial by claiming that they were not liable, as the accident was the result of an “act of God.” But the Goldbergs argued that the defendants’ argument required them to affirmatively establish “the intervention of the Supreme Being” in the accident, and that the jury should have been instructed as such.

Writing for the court, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Michael Musmanno agreed that the jury instructions were insufficient, but noted in his opinion that juries should not be responsible for assigning blame between God and man. “There is, or should be something inwardly disturbing about asking a jury to determine what part of an accident was caused by man and what part was wrought by the hand of God, and then to apportion the several liabilities,” he wrote. "Is this within the capacity of twelve mortal men and women?”

From Prediction to Prison

It would seem that humans can be held guilty for acts of nature after all. On Oct. 22, six Italian seismologists and one government official were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison for failing to alert the residents of L’Aquila, Italy before an earthquake hit the town and killed more than 300 people.

In 2009, the defendants were asked to assess the danger of a major earthquake occurring, after the region had experienced several months of seismic activity. The lawsuit claimed they used “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the risk of a quake in their assessment.

Climate Case

Climate change is a contentious issue, so it’s no surprise that it eventually ended up in the courts in Comer v. Murphy Oil. The plaintiff in the case argued that greenhouse gas emissions from oil companies and other energy producers had contributed to global warming and increased the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Although a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit allowed the case to proceed, an en banc panel vacated that decision by accepting the appeal, only to dissolve when multiple recusals resulted in a loss of the panel's quorum.

The Comer ruling also played a role in the more recent case Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp, in which a small Alaskan village forced to relocate by rising waters sued the oil company for monetary damages, arguing that the energy industry was responsible for flooding caused by climate change. Citing Comer, a district court ruled that Kivalina’s flooding was not “fairly traceable” to ExxonMobil’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Alanna Byrne

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