Question: With all the recent snow and ice conditions, am I still liable if my vehicle slides and hits another vehicle or someone in the roadway? What if I can show I took all reasonable precautions but was caught in an unexpected or unexpectedly hazardous situation, such as a sudden wind gust or icy bridge overpass?
A: The short answer is, yes, in most cases you are still liable if you hit someone under snow and ice conditions. As the authors of a textbook on this subject, PA Premises Liability: Law and Forms, let us explain to you why.
Pennsylvania “tort law” (civil wrongdoing) is based, at its core, on one word: reasonableness. In general, PA law would say if you chose to venture out in highly dangerous weather conditions, then you must have acted reasonably. If the roads you’re on seem to be especially icy or slippery, the reasonable driver would be expected to slow to a snail’s pace or even pull her car over and wait for a PennDot truck to spread salt. Or, it may be the reasonable driver would never have ventured out. If you ventured out for a reason that was not urgent and you could have waited, it is very likely you would be found negligent because you should have anticipated the possibility of especially dangerous conditions, like sheets of solid ice and sudden gusts of wind.
So, absent a truly unforeseen circumstance, like a suddenly appearing tornado or unforecasted snow and ice, you take a risk just by leaving the house. The law expects you to drive in an especially prudent and cautious fashion, if it is even prudent to be driving at all. You probably didn’t have to drive. You wanted to drive. The law says that in especially dangerous conditions, such as blizzard conditions, or even the snowfall we had on January 21, 2014, the decision to drive at all, to any destination, is probably a negligent one.
Does this mean you can’t drive? Don’t you have a constitutional right to drive? Actually, you do not. Driving is a privilege bestowed on us by the state in which we live. It is not a right. You will not find it in the Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution). You have a right to liberty and to pursue happiness, yes, but that does not mean you have a right to drive. Driving is a privilege you earn by passing tests and paying fees.
Are there exceptions to what we have said? Sure, it’s the law. There are always exceptions in the law. Well, almost always. You would be less likely to be found negligent for driving and causing an accident in extremely hazardous weather conditions if:
a. your service job required you to drive for public safety or the public welfare, such as a firefighter driving to the fire station, a cop driving to the police station or an ER doctor driving to the ER to treat the hordes of people who came in.
b. you are far from home, there are no hotels nearby and your only other option is to sleep in your car.
c. you try to stay over at the local hotels, instead of trying to drive home, but they are all sold out and you are en route to the next closest one when the accident occurs.
In sum, if you venture out in really dangerous winter weather conditions, without a necessitous and compelling reason to do so, you are taking a chance. A big one. It may be no matter how careful you drive, you are likely to become involved in an accident. It could well be that just your decision to drive was the negligence.
More commonly, people drive too fast for adverse weather conditions and therein lies the negligence. You may think you were driving slowly enough when in fact, that was not the case. Let’s face it. If weather conditions dictated that you not drive in excess of school zone speeds, then you probably should not have been out driving at all.
The moral of the story
If you must drive in severely inclement weather, drive MORE cautiously. Drive and MORE slowly and MORE alertly than you think you should. Kind of like setting your watch ten minutes ahead so you’re never late. Be safe.
–The Ostroff Injury Law Firm: We care about you and yours.