How To Navigate Texas Storm Litigation
Winter storm Uri caused an unprecedented amount of snow, ice, and freezing temperatures in Texas during February. Massive storm damage was found across all 254 counties. According to the Texas Tribune, the disaster could exceed 2017 damages from Hurricane Harvey — which cost approximately $125 billion. Once Texas began to thaw with the warmer temperatures, at least 69 people had died.
As of Monday, February 22, state agencies reported spending $41 million on the Texas winter storm, and local governments had spent $49 million, according to Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Department of Emergency. At this point, the true financial cost of this storm cannot be calculated. State infrastructure damage and the cost of repairing this infrastructure won’t be known for months.
Texas Winter Storm Damage & Who Is Responsible
Many things went wrong during the 2021 Texas winter storm, leading to significant property damage, injuries, and even death. One of the deadliest issues was the failure of Texas’ power grid during the extreme cold weather. People could not warm their homes due to the electrical grid failure, which led to dozens of people freezing to death inside. Other injuries due to the widespread power outage included hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.
In addition to the power outage across Texas, there were freezing pipes, which created a loss of city water access. At the midway point of the extreme winter storm, fire departments reported thousands of burst pipes all over the state. To find warmth, residents began burning items, and fires broke out in homes and apartment buildings. With low water pressure, fire departments were left unable to help.
The power outage, rolling blackouts, loss of water, and burst pipes were due to the winter storm, so who is liable for the injuries and damages caused by this extreme winter event?
Many people, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, believe grid operator Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and Texas utility providers should be responsible for these damages and injuries. They were aware of the dangers of a strong winter storm with freezing temperatures and the resulting demand for power to warm homes and businesses. However, they still were not prepared, and people’s lives were ultimately lost. Others believe it was a complete statewide failure for not being ready.
In the wake of the winter storm, several lawsuits have already been filed against Austin-based power grid operator ERCOT and CenterPoint Energy. These lawsuits were filed by family members of those who died and those who suffered extensive property damage. However, power companies generally have legal protection called sovereign immunity for most weather-related blackouts, like the ones experienced by Texans in February. So while it is rare for residents to sue a power company and receive compensation successfully, electric utilities need to be held liable. It’s their responsibility to provide a consistent supply of power, regardless of the weather outside.
At this point, ERCOT has claimed sovereign immunity, but the Texas Supreme Court will rule on whether ERCOT’s sovereign immunity will remain intact. This ruling will provide a glimpse of whether Texans can hold ERCOT accountable for its role and inaction in preparing their power grid for winter weather conditions.
Insurance Claims & Weather Events
Another battle for Texans when it comes to extreme weather events could involve insurance providers. While insurance companies offer policies that cover property damage, personal injury, lost wages, and more, insurers usually defend their policies to avoid compensating for losses.
If you’re a homeowner with homeowners insurance, your policy may cover property damage due to ice, burst pipes, food spoilage from a power outage, a tree falling on your neighbors’ home, and more. Consult your agent to determine if your policy will cover these circumstances. In some cases, insurance may cover these items, but if for some reason your provider denies coverage or you feel the compensation is too low, you may want to explore further legal options. Challenging an insurance company can be tricky, so contacting a Texas attorney knowledgeable in taking on insurance providers may be necessary.
If a tree fell on your car, your car insurance may cover the damages – if you have comprehensive coverage. If you don’t have comprehensive coverage on your vehicle, you’ll have to determine how to pay for repairs or a replacement vehicle.
As a renter, the landlord is ultimately responsible for making repairs to your home or apartment following a winter storm or other damaging weather event. However, the landlord won’t cover any damages to your possessions. If you have renters insurance, it may cover the cost of replacing your damaged items.
The winter storm caused widespread damage to residential properties, but we cannot overlook the damage to businesses across the state. Businesses are dealing with property destruction from burst pipes, flooding, inventory loss from wide-spread power outages and more. Who is responsible for these losses? Some commercial properties may see compensation from insurance companies, while the majority will have to explore legal avenues and litigation as well.
Other Extreme Weather Events in Texas
Winter storm Uri is just one example of an extreme weather event. If you live in Texas, other weather challenges can also cause significant damage and injuries. Here’s a brief highlight of potential severe weather that Texans face each year.
Tornadoes happen. They’re powerful and extremely damaging to people and property. Formed from severe thunderstorms, tornadoes regularly spawn off from extreme weather. Strong wind, hail and rain damage from tornadoes include minor property damage to roofs, windows and cars, to massive property damage should a direct tornado strike. This could mean the destruction of your house or business.
Hurricanes regularly affect the Gulf region of Texas but can also affect inland areas. Powerful storms form in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing driving rain, powerful wind, and spawn tornadoes. Damage from hurricanes can be due to wind and/or flooding. Insurance policies vary for hurricane coverage, so make sure you understand how you are protected before a hurricane hits. Some policies cover hurricane damage, while others only cover a portion.
Each year there is a risk of flooding across Texas. In 2002, the South Central Texas floods resulted from massive rainfall in a short period of time. The rain simply had nowhere else to go. Areas of flash flooding grew, causing damage to 48,000 homes and causing around $1 billion in damage. This particular flooding event took the lives of 12 people.
Flooding causes extensive damage, not just to property. The risk of personal injury during a flood is exceptionally high. Injuries could include bacterial infection from the floodwaters to being swept away in the rushing water, resulting in loss of life. Most insurance policies don’t cover damage caused by flooding. A separate insurance policy is required.
How To Prepare & Seek Help After Extreme Weather Events
Extreme weather will continue to happen, and the best way to stay safe and avoid injuries is to be prepared. In the case of weather-related emergencies, being prepared will help you feel more comfortable and in control. You and your family will know exactly what to do. Here are some steps you can take so you are ready in case of another significant winter storm or other severe weather.
Have an emergency family plan. Fires, tornados, hurricanes, winter storms and flooding can happen with little to no warning. Be prepared for these events by having a plan, so you and your family know what to do.
Talk to your family about an evacuation location in case of a fire. For a tornado, determine the safest area in your home for your family to shelter in place. Experts recommend a basement, but if you don’t have a safe room or basement, get as low as possible.
In the case of a hurricane, evacuation is often the best option. If you can’t evacuate, board up the glass in your home to prevent it from being broken. Prepare for power outages, damage from strong winds and driving rain. Make sure to have an emergency kit and review the contents. Prepare for flooding by moving treasured items up off the floor. And most importantly, pay attention to local media and weather reports for conditions in your area.
If you experience a winter storm, there are things you can do to prepare for freezing temperatures, which include protecting your home, property, pets, car, and even having a special winter weather emergency kit.
The best emergency plan ensures that each family member knows their role. Experts recommend that you and your loved ones practice your emergency plan twice a year. That way, if you ever need to use your plan, everyone knows what to do.
Have an emergency kit. An emergency kit should contain the following:
- Bottled water and non-perishable food, like canned food, for each family member, including pets
- Supplies of medicine for family members who require medication
- Copies of legal documents – like insurance policies, identification and the deed to your home
- Blankets and sleeping bags
- Matches and candles
- Soap or hand sanitizer
- Battery operated or hand-crank radio for listening to local radio updates
Keep the emergency kit handy for easy access. The best emergency kit is the one you and your family don’t need.
Pay attention to local weather advisories, watches and warnings. By doing so, you’ll know about the potential for severe, inclement weather near you. Most mobile weather apps have a notification system that will alert you when severe weather is nearby.
How FEMA Is Helping After the Texas Winter Storm
While you’re cleaning up from extreme weather, like the wintery conditions Texans found themselves battling, insurance is just one avenue of help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plays a role in helping people in a disaster area – including those caused by hurricanes, tornados, flooding and extreme winter storms.
Once activated by the federal government, FEMA supports immediate relief activities by sending equipment, resources, and boots on the ground to the areas affected. In Texas’s winter storm, they sent winterized diesel and gasoline and generators to support the Texas infrastructure. Ambulances were directed to Texas to help with health care. Blankets, water and hot meals were distributed.
If you’ve experienced this winter storm and need support, FEMA can assist. As President Biden issued a major disaster declaration, assistance for disaster survivors is available in at least 108 counties in Texas. This assistance will take several forms, including grants for temporary housing, home repairs, and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property damage.
If you experienced damage from the winter storm and have insurance, file a claim with your insurance company. In addition to an insurance claim, or if you are uninsured, you can apply for FEMA disaster assistance. You must apply for FEMA assistance within 60 days of February 19.
To apply for FEMA disaster assistance, you will need to provide:
- Current phone number where you can be reached
- Address at the time of the disaster
- Address where you are now staying
- Social Security number, if available
- A list of damage and losses
- If you’re insured, the insurance policy number or the company and the agent’s name
- Financial details – like total annual household income before taxes
If you’re unable to apply using the internet, call FEMA toll-free at 1-800-621-3362 to apply for assistance or check application status. People who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who use a Text Telephone can call 800-462-7585. You can also visit a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in person.
Some other helpful resources for storm preparation or after a major weather event include:
Ready – Severe Weather Preparation
No one wants to be a part of a weather-related emergency. But having an emergency plan, emergency supplies, and listening to local weather, can reduce the impact on you and your family. If you experience a devastating weather event, contact your insurance company if insured and apply for FEMA’s disaster assistance.
The Cochran Firm Texas cares about everyone impacted by damaging weather and is here to help. If you have any legal questions regarding injuries or incidents suffered during the 2021 winter storm in Texas, fill out our contact form, use our online chat, or call us at 1-800-843-3476 for a free consultation.