Is the Government Liable When Earthquake Warnings Go Wrong?

The recent earthquakes in California brought attention to the ShakeAlert system, which is intended to detect significant earthquakes quickly enough to send alerts to people before the shaking arrives. This system is in its infancy, but there’s hope it will eventually give the public precious seconds to take cover.  But will it also give rise to governmental liability?

According to officials, the ShakeAlertLA app didn’t send alerts for the recent big quakes, but it functioned as designed because the expected level of shaking in the LA area was below a trigger threshold.  As the L.A. Times reported, this experience may cause officials to tweak the threshold, as they try to balance sending out too many alerts with the possibility of not sending one out when needed.

Will the government be held liable if they don’t get the threshold right, or if the system fails altogether?

No, the government has immunity for that. The Government Claims Act (Govt C §§810–996.6) confers immunity from tort liability on public entities and their employees for certain claims. Among those are claims based on earthquake warnings.

The state and its agencies and employees are immune from liability for injuries caused by the issuance or nonissuance of a warning of an earthquake, or for acts or omissions in gathering facts, evaluation, or other activities leading to the issuance or nonissuance of such warning. Govt C §955.1(b).

Similarly, public entities and public employees are immune from liability for authorized actions, or refusals or failures to act, taken with respect to such warning or with respect to any preparatory acts or omissions (such as preparing or refusing to prepare hazard maps, evacuation plans, or other plan elements). Govt C §955.1(c).

And if a state of emergency or a local emergency is declared in connection with an earthquake warning, all immunity provisions applicable in those circumstances will apply during the state of emergency or local emergency. Govt C §955.1(d).

As the United States Geological Survey (USGS) works to improve earthquake warning, they and their public entity partners won’t have to worry about liability, for now at least.

For more on general immunities of public entities and employees , turn to CEB’s California Government Tort Liability Practice, chap 10.

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© The Regents of the University of California, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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