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Did your apartment building suffer any earthquake damage? The committee needs to investigate

Tom Bacon

As if Melbourne hasn’t endured enough over the past 18 months. Pandemic, lockdown, anti-vax riots, losing the hosting rights to the AFL Grand Final, and now, an earthquake.

What’s next? A plague of locusts perhaps …

While the immediate effects of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake on Wednesday,
September 22 only resulted in minor property damage being observed and, thankfully, no loss of life, the ongoing effect of the tremor and its aftershocks may give rise to minor building damage in apartment buildings.

The types of damage that might be apparent to the naked eye would most likely simply be the appearance of minor cracks in apartment walls.

In a very small number of buildings, the basement and carpark areas might well show signs of cracks appearing in walls also. 

This is not a cause for alarm. All modern buildings in Australia are designed to withstand earthquakes and all sorts of seismic activity. 

However, if a building was showing signs of settlement cracks before the earthquake, there is every possibility those cracks would have got larger following the quake. 

In very rare cases, and where there are pre-existing defects in the concrete and steel slab foundations, there is a chance the earthquake would accelerate the decline and degradation of materials.

To do a comprehensive structural engineering check of the building would be incredibly invasive, time consuming and very expensive. In short, it would not be recommended to do so, unless the building was aware of pre-existing issues in relation to foundations. 

With the above in mind, any apartment building that has actual knowledge (i.e., has received advice from an engineer) that there is an issue or a potential issue with its structures and foundations must immediately notify its insurer and seek to commission an expert report.

An owners’ corporation is obligated under its insurance policy with a duty to act in the utmost good faith and is also under an obligation to comply with a duty of disclosure to promptly advise of any issues. 

No doubt insurers will be sending its loss assessors all over Melbourne in the coming weeks and months to respond to notifications of potential claims. OCs need to act decisively and urgently in order to commission these loss assessment investigations. Delays to act might ultimately result in a denial of coverage. 

In addition, it would be wise for OCs to send a survey to all residents of the building asking for tenants and owners to self-report their observations of any earthquake damage in the form of cracking on the walls and floors that they may have noticed in their apartments or on the common property. 

The survey results can then be passed to the building’s insurer for further investigations and determination. 

In this regard, it is always better to be safe than sorry •

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