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Legal Consequences of The Iceland Volcano

I hope you haven’t tried to fly to or from Europe over the past few weeks. You might have heard that a bit of geologic activity on an island nation that most people probably don’t think about too often, has been wreaking havoc on air travel in Northern Europe.

I am, of course, referring to the eruption (click the link for some truly amazing footage of the eruption) of the Eyjafjallajökul (if you want to attempt to pronounce that, you’re braver than I) volcano. The giant ash cloud spewing from this big hole in the Earth has obscured the skies over Northern Europe, grounding flights for weeks. Everything seemed to get back to normal for a few days, but it now looks like Great Britain and Ireland are now feeling the effects, and have had to ground flights again.

As you might imagine, this has caused a lot of headaches for a lot of people. Businessmen were stranded in foreign cities, products couldn’t be shipped to their destinations, ordinary travel and commerce couldn’t take place. The affected airlines lost billions of dollars, and it’s difficult to calculate the losses suffered by everyone else who was impacted by this. Suffice to say, they are significant.

So, what are the likely legal consequences? Obviously, you can’t sue a volcano (and if you could, good luck getting it to show up in court). Needless to say, lawsuits concerning harm caused primarily by natural occurrences are tricky.

In general, you can’t sue a person for harm directly caused by an “Act of God.” That term doesn’t have much of a religious connotation these days; it just refers to any occurrence outside anybody’s control, usually caused by natural forces. The rationale behind this is easy to figure out – if harm was primarily caused by events outside a person’s control, it’s unfair to make anyone pay for the harm.

This isn’t to say that there are never legal consequences to harm caused by natural disasters. For example, a U.S. court recently ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers can be sued for failing to properly prepare for Hurricane Katrina, mainly through its failure to properly maintain the levees, which burst, causing most of the damage associated with the hurricane.

So, who can be sued, and for what? Well, the vast majority of these lawsuits will probably occur in Europe, under European law, which is decidedly not my area of expertise. However, in the Western world, legal traditions are fairly similar, when considered extremely broadly.

Generally, a person or company can be sued for damages resulting from a natural disaster if they were responsible for dealing with the consequences of it, and significantly failed in performing this duty.

Some individuals and businesses who had the delivery of vital products interrupted may be able to sue someone for breach of contract, as well. This would, however, be a stretch. In general, if the ability to perform under a contract is rendered completely impossible by events beyond the control of either party, the breach is excused. However, some delivery contracts may call for liquidated damages, providing for compensation for any failure to perform, regardless of cause. If a business is operating under a large number of these contracts, the volcanic eruption and associated transportation problems might cause a much larger number of these provisions than usual to be invoked. This may lead to financial obligations which they were not prepared for, and did not budget to, meet.

Obviously, this could lead to major lawsuits if these businesses cannot meet their financial obligations.

Furthermore, if it comes to light that the airlines didn’t adequately prepare for an event like this (the effects of volcanic ash on airplanes being well-known), they may face lawsuits from passengers who suffered weeks of delays. This seems unlikely, however.

It should be noted that airlines probably won’t be solely on the receiving end of these lawsuits. Many experts on the subject are saying that the airspace shutdown was much longer and more restrictive than necessary. The airlines, as mentioned earlier, lost billions as a result of this shutdown. What if it turns out that the regulators who required it acted without having all the facts, in a knee-jerk manner, and ended up throwing a monkey wrench into the economies of most of the Western world? You can bet the airlines will want to have a word with the relevant government agencies, probably in court.

One particularly sad case, which involves far more than business interests, was reported a few weeks ago, when this mess was at its height. Apparently, an unidentified toddler in Europe was awaiting a bone marrow transplant, and the tissue was set to be flown in from Canada, and was delayed by the ash cloud. I haven’t been able to find an update on the child’s condition, and obviously hope she’s alright.

If she suffered injuries as a result of this delay, most people would scream “medical malpractice!” Unfortunately, they’d be legally incorrect, since any injuries caused to her by this delay would be absolutely no fault of the doctors. However, her parents may, like the airlines, have a case against the regulators that grounded the flights.

Much like the Louisiana oil spill, claims related to the delays caused by this volcano are likely to take years to resolve, especially considering many of the lawsuits will likely involve decisions about what country to file in, and, accordingly, what country’s law will apply. This will be further complicated if any contracts which were breached as a result of this contain choice of law clauses, and courts will have to decide whether to enforce them. Preliminary procedural matters like that can take a very long time to resolve, before the merits of the case are even decided.

Meanwhile, the volcano will continue to do whatever it’s going to do, utterly indifferent to our silly little human machinations.


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