There has been a dramatic upturn in the UK in the number of sinkholes. Just a few weeks ago, a 20ft sinkhole opened up in a residential street in Newcastle. In October, a giant sink hole appeared in St Albans causing five homes to be evacuated. In August, we witnessed a 40ft sink hole on the Mancunian Way in Manchester, which caused traffic chaos for weeks. There were a reported nine sink holes in February alone, mainly caused by heavy rainfall and flooding.

With the recent storms and floods that have hit the UK, and with the Met Office forecasting more heavy rainfall over the forthcoming weeks and months, this trend is likely to continue. Tom Handley considers some of the legal implications in the aftermath of a sinkhole, and the measures which can be put in place to avoid problems and claims occurring.

What are sinkholes?

A sinkhole is essentially ground which has collapsed through natural causes. Sinkholes form when rainwater (which has become acidic through carbon monoxide in the air and/or through rotting vegetation and the soil) erodes rocks underground (commonly chalk and limestone) which, in turn, create voids or cavities beneath thick soil. When the voids expand, the soil above them can collapse into the voids.

The increase in rainfall and flooding means that more and more properties could be at risk.

Legal implications and practical tips/risk avoidance measures

Conveyancing solicitors and surveyors

You should try to ensure that ground stability issues are identified, and their implications highlighted to the client, prior to exchange of contracts. You should recommend that the client obtain an environmental report to provide risk screening which will show areas of shallow mine-working, which are more susceptible to sinkholes. There are also databases of non-coal mining and natural cavities.

Where appropriate, advise your client to obtain a specialist ground survey and/or obtain adequate insurance to cover sinkholes.

Local authorities

When there are warning signs of a sinkhole in a public area, you should take positive action e.g. commissioning a surveyor to assess the likelihood of collapse and/or cordoning off or evacuating the area. If not, then it could be argued that you have neglected your duty to adequately maintain that area or taken reasonable safeguarding measures when there became a foreseeable risk of injury or damage.

Homeowners/landowners

You should ensure that your home insurance policy covers sink holes. Take out extra insurance to cover garden features. A lot of insurance policies only cover damage to the fabric of the building and foundations, and it can be incredibly expensive to fill a huge sinkhole in your garden.

Landowners can face liability in negligence and nuisance caused to neighbouring persons or property by natural nuisances emanating from their land. Again, if there are warning signs of a sinkhole and you fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it collapsing/causing damage, then you could be in breach of your duty of care in negligence and nuisance to the neighbouring owner.

Brokers (personal lines)

You should ensure that the limitations of building insurance are drawn to your client’s attention and that extra cover is recommended where appropriate.