So, what happens if you’re injured in an accident during, or caused by, severe weather conditions? For a skilled analysis, we’ve asked James Scott Farrin shareholder and litigation attorney Hoyt Tessener for his perspective. His answers may surprise you.
The Weather, the Road and Personal Injury
- Let’s get this one out of the way first. Can the weather be at fault for an accident while I’m driving?
Yes. The weather can be at fault for a wreck but only under unusual circumstances. For example, the road could be poorly constructed. The weather can also be a contributing factor if for example the vehicle goes into a defective guard rail.
- If another driver is involved, how important is it to determine fault, and how is it determined?
It is very important to determine fault. Initially, fault is determined from the crash report that is prepared by the investigating law enforcement officer. It is always important to call the police whenever there is a wreck. However, the law enforcement officers may make a mistake or enter the wrong codes. Fault is ultimately determined in a negligence case by what a jury of twelve people decide.
- Can’t it even be the weather’s fault?
If the weather is at fault, it is an accident.
- Does it matter if there are severe weather warnings? Does that make me more responsible for my choice to drive in that weather or does it matter?
If you are driving during severe weather, you may be contributory negligent. If the weather comes upon you suddenly or upon somebody else suddenly, then it can be what is described as a sudden emergency. A sudden emergency is a heightened standard of care. Basically we all have an obligation to drive and operate a vehicle as a reasonable person would in the same or similar circumstances. If you are hit with sudden adverse weather, the standard becomes driving as a reasonable person would in those same or similar circumstances – the adverse weather.
- Let’s say a storm knocks out power to an intersection and the traffic signals are out. What happens if I get hit and injured while going through that intersection?
The rules of the road always apply. If traffic signals are out, then you have to follow the rules of the road as if there is an intersection with no traffic lights and all roads have stop signs. Everyone is expected to come to a complete stop at the intersection. The vehicle that arrives first goes first and then you circle around counterclockwise. A vehicle turning yields to a vehicle going straight.
- What happens if my child is on a school bus during severe weather and is injured in an accident?
A child on a school bus is injured due to severe weather, it is an accident. However, if the bus driver and/or another person is at fault, for example for running a stop light, and your child was injured as a result of the collision, then your child would have a claim.
The Takeaways: While storms can contribute to an accident, injury caused directly from weather conditions is an act of God. And you can’t sure God. If your actions or reactions cause an accident, you are likely to be at fault just as in normal weather. If someone else’s action or reactions cause you injury, you may have a claim. And, in certain cases, a weather-related accident may be worsened by a defect, such as a bad road or a faulty guardrail. In those case, you may have a claim.
BREAKOUT: Contributory Negligence Defined
contributory negligence: n. a doctrine of common law that if a person was injured in part due to his/her own negligence (his/her negligence "contributed" to the accident), the injured party would not be entitled to collect any damages (money) from another party who supposedly caused the accident. Under this rule, a badly injured person who was only slightly negligent could not win in court against a very negligent defendant. NOTE: Some exceptions or exclusions can apply, which is why it is always advisable to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney.
Storms, Wind and Who Pays if You Get Hurt
- I’ll get a bit more specific. What if I’m hurt by an actual tornado while driving? They’re freak storms, after all.
If you are driving during a tornado and injured as a result, you would not be entitled to any recovery.
- What if a tree from a yard along the street gets blown over and hits my car, injuring me. Does that homeowner have to pay for my injuries?
A tree that is blown over by a storm would only create liability if the tree owner knew the tree was weak or damaged and should have been removed or replaced.
- What if that tree is already in the road when I hit it and get injured?
If you hit a tree in the road and are injured, you have no recovery unless someone was chopping down the tree expecting it to fall in a different direction and instead it fell on you as you were driving by.
- Let’s say I’m driving on the highway and high winds blow a tractor trailer over, causing me to crash. That’s not my fault, right?
BREAKOUT: When a Storm Blows Over… a Truck
The University of Kansas Department of Engineering performed a study in 2009 to determine the effects of wind on motorists. Full tractor trailers were found vulnerable to being blown off the road in winds of 60mph or more. Empty tractor trailers, on the other hand, were adversely affected in crosswinds of just 15-20mph.
The Takeaways: Storms that have high winds pose numerous risks, but the vast majority of their effects are acts of God. There is little chance that someone is going to be at fault – other than you. The lesson here is not to drive during wind storms. Got off the road!
Water Hazards, From Above and Below
- Water is dangerous as well, especially over the road. Let’s say I drive into water that’s covering the road and get hurt. Does it make any difference if there’s a flash flood watch?
If water pools on the road due to a defective road design or maintenance, you may have a claim. If you just drive into standing water, you are responsible for your own actions and would not have a claim. If you have decided to drive during a flash flood watch and you are in an area that is known to flood, you would have no claim.
- What if I hit someone trying to avoid the water? Or they hit me trying to avoid it?
If you hit someone while driving, regardless of the reason, it is likely that you are going to be at fault. The same applies for them.
BREAKOUT: Half a Million Injuries a Year Occur on Wet Roads
According to the U.S Department of Transportation, the seemingly innocuous wet road is one of the most dangerous places to drive. Each year, about 75% of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on wet roads, and nearly half occur while it’s raining. Wet road crashes account for more than 5,000 fatalities and more than 540,000 injuries. Roadway flooding was said to be the greatest source of fatalities.
The Takeaways: Water on the road is a tricky issue. If you choose to drive during heavy rain when there are flood watches and warnings, you could be seen as contributing to the accident – contributory negligence. If the flooding happens due to poor road design, you may have a claim. As always, you are responsible for your choices and actions. A court and a jury will hold you to the standard of what a reasonable person would do in your specific circumstance. And reasonable people do not often drive during flood warnings!