When Bad Weather Causes a Car Accident
UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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The key issue in determining liability for a car accident—regardless of the weather—is negligence. Was each of the persons involved in the accident acting in accordance with the standards of care that a reasonable person would follow in similar circumstances. Bad weather like fog, rain, ice, wind or snow is often an important circumstance that helps determine whether the person was acting reasonably or was falling below the required standard of care and thus was driving negligently (or possibly, recklessly).
What Is Reasonable?
For example, on a clear bright day, without heavy or stalled traffic, it would be reasonable for a person to drive at the speed limit on an open highway. However, as fog or heavy rain can significantly impair visibility (as can lighting conditions), mindlessly going at the speed limit in fog or a heavy downpour is not what a reasonable driver would be expected to do. Similarly, snow, ice or slick wet pavement can significantly impair anyone’s ability to apply the brakes and bring a car or truck to a halt within its normal stopping distance. As a result, under those bad weather circumstances a reasonable person would be expected to slow down, perhaps significantly.
Suppose bad weather caused the driver to slow down from the posted speed limit of 65 to only 50 or to 35? Would that be slow enough to demonstrate that the driver was acting as a reasonable person, and thus not be found liable or negligent? The answer is, it all depends. In many situations the insurance adjuster might initially conclude (and a judge or jury might later find) the driver was not travelling at an excessive rate of speed given the circumstances. However, if there was blinding rain or sufficiently thick fog so that a reasonable person would be expected to pull over and keep off the road until conditions improve, under such circumstances even driving well under the speed limit could be found to have been negligent; by not pulling off the road the driver would not have been acting as a reasonable person would be expected to act.
Other Contributing Factors
Other factors, such as the condition of the car, the condition of the tires, whether the windshield wipers were functioning effectively, whether the defogger was operating, whether alcohol or drugs were involved, whether the car's headlights were properly aligned and on, whether its taillights and brake lights were functioning, the driver's familiarity with the roads, other hazards (such as fallen rocks or branches) and road conditions all come into play. In a collision involving two or more vehicles, the conduct of each of the drivers would come into play in determining whether one or more were at fault, and if more than one were at least partly at fault, the relative responsibility and liability for the accident.
Negligence and Pedestrians
While a driver is typically liable in an accident involving a pedestrian, the pedestrian’s actions may also come into play. Bad weather also impacts what a reasonable pedestrian would do under the circumstances, such as not wandering onto the roadway, crossing only at a crosswalk and/or with the traffic light, and perhaps wearing clothing that is highly visible or carrying a light at night. While not meeting the required standard of care may mean that a driver is negligent, if both parties failed to meet the required standard of care and acted negligently, the liability of the more negligent party could be limited or (in some states) non-existent.