Can natural disasters lead to legal malpractice?

Florida is known for many things: Disneyworld, alligators, college and professional football, the Everglades, and much more. One thing it is also very well known for is hurricanes. Some of the biggest - and most destructive - hurricanes in recent history have made landfall along the Florida coastline and then moved further inland, carving a path of destruction throughout the state.

The natural response to anyone upon whom a hurricane is bearing down is to think first and foremost of safeguarding their family and their property. Of course, that needs to be done, but attorneys, held in trust of sensitive client files, documents, property and more, must go one step further in their natural disaster preparedness.

If an attorney, after due warning of a natural disaster, fails to take steps to adequately protect his or her client's property and that property is subsequently destroyed, there may be civil spoliation of evidence claims as well as potential malpractice on the part of the attorney.

It's important for attorneys, when considering their disaster preparedness measures, to ponder a number of different questions, the answers to which might very well mean the difference between civil and professional liability and a momentary hiccup in the recovery process following a storm. These include:

· Does the building housing the law firm meet - or exceed - construction codes put into place following the onslaught of Hurricane Andrew back in 1992? If not, the firm could be open to liability should client property be destroyed.

· Should client files and evidence be relocated to an offsite secure location? How else could the attorney best protect client property entrusted to him or her? If adequate notice is received of a destructive event, attorneys should consider the sanctity of the materials in their offices.

· Is a plan in place for the law firm to be able to continue business operations following a hurricane or other disaster? (A satellite office? Offsite file storage? Duplicates of client information?) This is important information for clients with ongoing cases.

· How will the law firm track important deadlines and appointments if a disaster destroys everything onsite? Are clients protected from such things as missing statutes of limitation, court hearings and more? (Does the firm have backup electronic timekeeping that can be accessed from offsite?) Duty for these matters shouldn't fall solely on the client him or herself; the attorney still bears responsibility even after a weather event, fire or other catastrophe.

· How will a firm manage to protect the confidentiality of client information if the building is heavily damaged? Are there theft control, document destruction or computer data destruction protocols in place to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands? The last thing a client needs, particularly a local one who might also be recovering from the same natural disaster, is to have sensitive data unaccounted for. Steps need to be taken to prevent that.

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