After the storm passes, legal questions swirl

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Shortly after an EF-4 tornado plowed across southern Indiana in March 2012 and left most of Henryville a pile of rubble, volunteers arrived with their chainsaws and trucks offering to help clear the destruction.

Residents of the tiny town had to rely on neighbors and strangers, but their needs that came from rebuilding quickly grew beyond removing debris and repairing homes. They had questions about insurance, aid applications and construction contracts.

sandy-stoll-15col.jpg The ABA’s Young Lawyer Division Disaster Legal Services is led by I.U. McKinney School of Law graduates David Nguyen and Ryan Hamilton. Pictured above, Hamilton and ABA staff member Gina Sadler, right, help a Hurricane Sandy survivor.(Photo submitted)

Help with these and other legal matters came from local attorneys who volunteered to guide and advocate for the residents as they maneuvered through the overwhelming, sometimes frustrating, paperwork of claims, family disputes and missing documents.

Whether experiencing tornadoes in places like Henryville and Joplin, Mo., or hurricanes the magnitude of those that swept through the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard, survivors will eventually need a lawyer. Through a collaboration of neighboring attorneys like in southern Indiana or organized by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division Disaster Legal Services, lawyers offer their knowledge and problem-solving skills to people trying to return to normal.

Hoosier attorneys wanted to use their knowledge of the administrative process, the judicial process and legal issues to do what they could to help Henryville and the tiny surrounding communities, explained J. Mark Robinson, attorney with Indiana Legal Services Inc. in New Albany.

“We really do have a noble profession that seeks common good and wants to be available to our citizens,” he said.

Come rain or shine

Since the 1970s, the ABA has been coordinating disaster legal assistance by working with local affiliates, bar associations and legal aid organizations in devastated areas. Since September 2007, the DLS has responded to 103 disasters in 37 states.

Currently the director of the ABA’s Disaster Legal Services Program is Indianapolis attorney David Nguyen. He volunteers his time because he wants to serve and do something meaningful.

Legal problems that disaster survivors face basically cover the curriculum from the first year of law school. Property law, family law and help navigating the bureaucracy are all part of the mix. Landlord–tenant issues, denied insurance claims, and recovering missing documents like Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and deeds to homes are common problems as well.

Also, Nguyen noted, “funny things you wouldn’t think about” crop up after a storm. These include family disagreements arising from custody arrangements and even bankruptcy declarations.

Legal problems resulting from historic storms like hurricanes Katrina, Isaac and Sandy are so widespread and so huge, Nguyen said, they will take years to solve.

In the calm that comes after the storm, the ABA organizes a hotline that connects survivors to attorneys and legal assistance. Volunteering lawyers are also given space in disaster recovery centers established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The ABA provides a needed service,” Nguyen said. “Absolutely, I think it provides a real needed service.”

Echoing Robinson, Nguyen pointed out volunteering for disaster legal services enables lawyers to bolster their image. It is an opportunity, he said, to show lawyers are not solely concerned with the billable hour but rather want to help people in need.

Stormy weather

On March 2, the town of Henryville and surrounding communities will mark the first anniversary of the tornadoes. The high school has been rebuilt, St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church has been repaired, and the residents have been putting their lives back together.

 The tornado hit the town on a Friday afternoon. On Monday, Clark Circuit Judge Daniel Moore convened a handful of attorneys at an O’Charley’s restaurant to discuss the help the legal community could offer.

Within a day, the Indiana State Bar Association held a conference call about the installation of a hotline that survivors could call for assistance. John Woodard, partner at Wyatt Tarrant & Combs LLP in New Albany, offered that he and his firm would handle the referrals from the hotline.

A short time later, Rodney Scott, attorney at Waters Tyler Hofmann & Scott LLC in New Albany, contacted Moore. Scott spent the first weekend after the storm in Henryville, cleaning accommodations and preparing meals for volunteers from the Salvation Army. What he saw of the destruction disturbed his sleep and spurred him to confer with Moore.

Scott then helped organize a legal clinic for residents to go for answers and advice. On a Saturday about two weeks after the tornado, the viewing room of Adams Funeral Home in Henryville was divided into a consultation area and a waiting room. Numerous attorneys volunteered in two sessions to meet and help the survivors with their legal problems.

“It was a good day,” Scott said. “I was very impressed by the willingness of the attorneys to jump in and do whatever was needed.”

Indiana Legal Services Inc. and the Indiana Bar Foundation also contributed to the rehabilitation effort. Robinson of ILS joined the Saturday clinic where he offered guidance in two family law cases.

The attorneys were not soliciting business or searching for clients. They provided help sorting through insurance coverage disputes and handling estate matters, misappropriated donations and contractor agreements as well as gave advice on how to protect an individual identity when birth certificates and other personal documents had been blown to unknown destinations. Sometimes they just did a little handholding and talked to the people.

Woodard advocated for one survivor who was handed an exorbitant bill for air ambulance service. The individual, who had suffered broken bones in the tornado and was airlifted to medical care, was charged $20,000 by the service provider. That was well in excess of Medicaid rates so Woodard negotiated, even threatened litigation, and was able to get the bill significantly reduced.

The Indiana Bar Foundation recognized what Robinson called the “Herculean effort” by Woodard and Wyatt Tarrant & Combs with a President’s Award.

Blue skies

Materials and packets of information that were put together and handed out after the southern Indiana tornado have been filed away so if ever such a disaster happens again, the legal community will be prepared.

The ABA is also getting ready for the next disaster by forecasting through different scenarios. Nguyen traveled to Southern California in December to brainstorm with other attorneys and organizations about what type of legal relief will be needed after the next major earthquake.

Going forward, Nguyen wants to establish a single unified hotline. Currently, the 800 number changes with each location, but he is working to create one number that will be available after disasters so survivors will know immediately who to call for legal help.

Also, he wants to create a database of attorneys with foreign language skills. In a disaster, these lawyers could be called upon to help with translating for survivors.

What and when the next disaster will be are unknowns. But it is certain that following the storm, legal problems will unfold and lawyers will be there to help.•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.