There is so much natural beauty in California. Sweeping mountain vistas bracketed by plush forests and oceanside highways bathed in perpetual sunshine. The flipside to all that splendor is the environment’s susceptibility to earthquakes, wildfires, landslides and flooding.

These regular calamities can devastate communities and leave surviving homeowners scrambling to rebuild. According to the Insurance Information Institute, standard property insurance policies rarely cover damages caused earthquakes or mudslides, especially if you live on a hillside or basin. But what if the disaster was caused by something unnatural, like a downed electrical line?

What is inverse condemnation?

Utility powerlines can be responsible for sparking destructive and deadly fires. Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay $25.5 billion to settle lawsuits filed by insurance companies, local governments and victims after its equipment caused wildfires that killed at least 86 people and wiped out the town of Paradise.

In California, utilities can be held liable if their workers or equipment cause fires associated with property damage. The state supreme court in 1885 recognized the concept of inverse condemnation. It applies to all government agencies and utility companies providing a public benefit, such as electricity, roadways or sewer lines.

If you sue a utility or public works agency for damages under inverse condemnation, you must prove four elements in the case:

  • Ownership or financial interest in the property
  • Government regulation or project management
  • Actions by the government or its agent damaged the property
  • The public work caused the damage

A judge typically answers whether inverse condemnation can be applied to a case, but you can ask a jury to determine if you deserve compensatory damages.

Meanwhile, fires are not the only disasters than can spin off man-made conditions. Landslides can happen after widening highways or extending railroads. Improper drainage can cause flooding and contribute to mudslides.

Finding answers

Losing your house to a disaster can be one of the most traumatic experiences of your life. Such misfortune can seem like Mother Nature has it out for you. But there might be another cause buried beneath the rubble.

Investigating what work government agencies or utilities have done in the area might explain some of it. It also takes thorough scrutiny of the facts and knowledge of the surrounding geology and geography to build a case. Finding answers and holding people accountable might help you start rebuilding after such a devastating loss.