Induced Seismicity and the Potential for Liability Under American Law

Darlene A. Cypser*
Scott D. Davis**


Earthquakes induced by human activities sometimes cause injuries to people or damages to property. These injuries may be caused by vibrations or ground failure or both. Under American law the inducer of an earthquake can be made to pay for damages resulting from the quake.

Liability for damage caused by vibrations can be based on several legal theories. In some states activities which induce earthquakes might be considered "ultrahazardous" or "abnormally dangerous" activities that require companies engaged in them to pay for injuries the quakes cause regardless of how careful the inducers were. Vibration damage is also sometimes viewed as a "trespass" analogous to a physical invasion. In some circumstances, a court might find an inducer was negligent in its site selection or in maintenance of the project. If induced seismicity interferes with another's use or enjoyment of her land, then it may be a legal nuisance, even at levels that cause little physical damage.

Human-induced ground failure, whether caused directly by fault movement or as a result of vibrations, may also be deemed a trespass or a nuisance by a court of law. In most states owners of land owe a duty of lateral support to adjacent landowners, and in some states, mineral lessees owe a duty of subjacent support to the surface owners. Failure to meet those duties of support can result in liability.

The best alternative to paying for induced earthquake damage is to avoid inducing damaging quakes. Companies in the petroleum, mining and geothermal fields need to: acknowledge that induced seismicity is a hazard inherent to their industries; familiarize themselves with what is known about induced seismicity; take steps to avoid damaging quakes; and cooperate with scientists studying induced earthquakes.

* Attorney at Law;

** Geophysicist, U. S. Geological Survey