SUBSIDENCE, HEAVE AND LANDSLIP: WHAT IS REALLY COVERED?

(by Tarran Dookie)

landslipDEFINITION OF TERMS

One of the effects of the changing weather patterns is that extremes in weather may result. We can experience excessive rainfall or prolonged dry spells. There may be increasing incidences of damage due to subsidence, heave and landslip.

Foundations can move upwards, downwards or sideways; these movements are generally caused by subsidence, heave and landslip. What exactly do we mean by subsidence, heave and landslip?

Subsidence is any downward movement of soil. It refers to a sinking of the land with respect to its previous level. It is the process of sinking or settling of a land surface because of natural or artificial causes. Causes include: movements, falls or changes in underground workings, or changes in the moisture content of soil.

Heave is an upward movement of soil. This may take place in ground with a low moisture content (perhaps because of drought conditions or from substantial removal of water by tree roots) that suddenly is able to absorb more moisture (due to the return of heavy rains or cutting down or dying of trees). The increased absorption of moisture causes swelling of the soil and heave results. Heave lifts affected foundations to a higher level than when they were constructed.

Landslip or landslide has been defined in the case of Oddy v. Phoenix Assurance Co. Ltd., (1966) as ‘a rapid downward movement (under the influence of gravity) of a mass of rock or earth on a slope.’ Landslip is normally associated with sloping sites where the interface between differing soil strata types come under pressure and are separated. This is often exacerbated when lubricated after periods of heavy rainfall. The term is used to describe a variety of phenomena, from rock falls to the gradual downhill flow of soil (known as soil creep). Among the processes that can lead to a landslide are the steepening of a slope by natural erosion or excavation, the overloading of the slope by an inflow of water, and the motion caused by an earthquake.

Soil creep is the slow downhill movement, usually over relatively short distances, of near-surface masses of soil and loose rock material on hillslopes under the influence of gravity, soil dynamics (shrink– swell or freeze–thaw action), and soil-water movements.

LOCAL (TRINIDAD & TOBAGO) INSURANCE COVER

The typical policy in Trinidad & Tobago has the following wording:

COLLAPSE DUE TO SUBSIDENCE OR LANDSLIP

The insurance under this Policy shall extend to include loss or damage directly caused by Collapse due to Subsidence or Landslip of the site on which the building insured or containing the property insured stands but excluding: –

Loss or damage occasioned by happening through or in consequence of

(i) Coastal or river erosion

(ii) Demolition, structural alteration or structural repair.

For the purpose of this extension “Collapse” and “Subsidence or Landslip” shall mean:-

Collapse: – a falling of the building or part thereof in such a way that one or more component parts of the building become detached or separated from the remainder.

Subsidence or Landslip: – a shifting or falling away of the soil in such a way as to leave the building wholly or partially unsupported.

One should note that what is covered is not subsidence and landslip but rather ‘collapse due to subsidence and landslip’. Furthermore, it is not just any collapse but specifically collapse that results in one or more component parts of the building becoming detached or separated from the remainder.  This would exclude even major cracks following subsidence or landslip, if collapse as defined has not occurred. This explanation to a claimant evokes shock and oftentimes anger.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH IS NEEDED

Local insurers lament the fact that more and more clients are being insured abroad. While this may be due primarily to lower rates, undoubtedly an unwillingness by local insurers to offer cover that is available elsewhere will only exacerbate the problem.

In this matter of subsidence, heave and landslip, policies issued in Trinidad & Tobago should provide cover that more closely resembles what is offered abroad. It is obvious from the many disputes and dissatisfaction surrounding these types of claims that the public believe that a raw deal has been given to them.

There is also the issue of damage caused by subsidence, heave or landslipnot of the site on which the building stands but of another site (e.g.neighbouring lands ) or damage caused when soil or rock slides down a slope and strikes the insured’s building. The present policy wording gives no cover for this type of situation. Should not insurers consider underwriting this risk? Actually, some insurers are willing to consider it if there is no selection (that is, all policies would cover it and not just a few so that there would be sufficient premium income to pay potential claims) and higher premiums than currently exist are charged. We hope that insurers would give this their serious consideration as we do not see this risk as any greater than floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.