The short answer is normally not. The idea arose when I read this headline which I consider to be complete nonsense: Ice and snow blamed for fatal accident. I read it, then reread it and laughed because it is obvious the writer is missing a basic understanding of what makes up negligent behavior. The headline reinforces a popular misconception that is legally incorrect, because snow and ice do not drive cars and therefore can't cause any accident.
Let's look at what happened in this collision. It’s a two-car collision on U.S. Highway 34 in Monroe County on February 13th around 4:47 PM. Two cars traveling in opposite directions collide. The first vehicle is being driven by an 18-year old awoman traveling in the westbound lane. She’s driving a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt. She is from Ottumwa. The second car is a 2005 Hyundai Tucson being driven by a 33-year old woman from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She’s driving east on this same stretch of highway. For those not familiar with this roadway (at the time of this collision) it’s a two-lane undivided U.S. highway. There are passengers in each vehicle. A passenger in the second vehicle is fatally injured. Officer Daniel, of the Iowa State Patrol writes the ISP report. He’s notified of the collision at 16:48 and arrives at the scene at 16:51, so it doesn't take him long to get there. He arrives shortly after he receives the call. Let’s see how he describes the collision.
UNIT #1 WAS TRAVELING WEST ON HIGHWAY 34 WHEN IT LOST CONTROL ON THE 100% SNOW COVERED ROADWAY. UNIT #1 CROSSED THE CENTERLINE AND SLID SIDEWAYS INTO THE EASTBOUND LANE IN THE PATH OF UNIT #2. UNIT #2 STRUCK UNIT #1 IN THE PASSENGER SIDE DOOR. AFTER IMPACT, UNIT #2 CAME TO REST IN THE EASTBOUND LANE AND UNIT #1 TRAVELED DOWN INTO THE DITCH AND CAME TO REST IN THE EASTBOUND DITCH. TROOPER KEVIN STALLO #488 WILL CONDUCT A TECHNICAL INVESTIGATION OF THE COLLISION.
Officer Daniel notes major contributing circumstances that include the weather conditions, the road surface condition and he then notes the first event is that one of the vehicles crossed the center line. Let’s assume for today's discussion this to be the case. There are four factors to take into consideration.
- There is a snow storm.
- The roadway has snow and ice on the surface.
- The Cobalt crosses the center line.
- The Cobalt driver’s speed is fast enough for the weather conditions that the tires of her vehicle lose traction allowing the vehicle to slide out of control.
The first question you have to ask yourself is whether the weather was so bad that a driver should simply not leave the house? Perhaps the better decision is to wait out the storm. Or, if you are already on the road, to pull off and wait for the weather to clear. And then we have to examine speed of the Cobalt and whether the driver simply failed to slow down. Anyone who drives in an Iowa winter has made one or all of these decisions. When a driver fails to act reasonably by acting on the weather then they ARE, at least to some degree, clearly at fault.
Iowa is a comparative fault state. What is fault as the law defines it? Fault is one or more omissions towards the person or property of the actor or of another which constitutes negligence or recklessness. It could mean misuse of a product, unreasonable failure to avoid an injury or unreasonable failure to mitigate damages. Iowa Code 668.1. After you determine if more than one party to the claim is at fault then you have to compare the two. More than one person can be at fault under the law.
What is negligence?
Or stated another way, what things make a person negligent? Let's start off with the rules of the road. Under Iowa law there are rules of the road that everyone learned when they first learning to drive. These rules are things like drive on the right side, don’t cross the center line unless it’s safe to do so, drive at the posted speed limit, don’t pass when there is a double yellow line and obey the traffic signs and signals, to name a few. Chapter 321 of the Iowa Code lists well over 400 rules-of-the-roads. These are what we call statutory rules because they are created by the legislature through enactment of a statute.
Then there is the common law that has created certain rules for using the public highways. These include a common law duty to drive so that you can maintain control, to drive using ordinary care where conditions require less than the statutory speed limit and maintaining a proper look out.
Read alone, a person might think they are not negligent for driving the posted speed limit even though the weather conditions indicate otherwise. The speed limit could be 55 M.P.H. but that doesn’t excuse a person has a legal right to ignore an ice covered road and continue on. The Queen would not say "Carry On" in this instance. No, when the roadway is covered in ice/snow and you fail to adjust to the conditions and slow down then you are acting negligently. We all have a duty to drive at a careful speed not greater than or less than is reasonable and proper, having due regard for the traffic, surface and width of the highway and of any other existing conditions. That is the first jury instruction under speed restrictions. UJI 600.1 (You need to be a lawyer to have access to the UJI through the Iowa Bar Association website so don't go off searching for the UJI's.) Anyone who’s ever sat on a jury that decided a car accident case probably heard and read this instruction.
And as the court’s instruction would be to a jury, a violation of this duty is negligence.
So let’s get back to our example of driving while the road is ice and snow covered and snow is falling. I make no judgments about who is or is or is not at fault or negligent in this case because I don't know all facts about this accident. We know what the police said about it, but the police officer isn’t a court of law and those findings are not conclusive. If before leaving the house you see it’s snowing and know the roads are ice covered you have to ask if you can drive safely or not. If not maybe you should stay home. On the other hand it you’re out driving and it begins to snow and the roads become ice covered there is a point in time when you should pull off the road to avoid losing control. And if you can drive safely, if you slow down, then do so.
Ask yourself, what is the explanation of why each driver continued to drive and not pull over or to slow down enough to not lose control? Remember the facts? The car collision occurs in one lane of travel. One car crossed the center line. That is a very important fact. Because whatever you might think of car two’s driver continuing to drive, they were doing so under control; and that’s not true about the first car. So as badly as you may feel about the collision and how badly the occupants were injured it doesn’t excuse negligence. And the weather isn’t a valid excuse because the weather can't be at fault, it’s just a consideration that frankly should indicate to the driver to slow down or to stop. I say that because the weather isn’t driving the car. It’s a driver. Looking back at the beginning of this post, the headline blaming ice and snow for this fatal accident is inaccurate and a misstatement of the law of negligence.
Now all of you who read this and believe it sounds so easy that you should represent yourselves, think again. A professor in law school was heard to say, “A lawyer representing himself has a fool for a client.” In most instances I would agree with Professor Powers. Being prepared isn’t the same as being able to litigate a lawsuit. Be prepared, but don’t be foolish.
Know your rights, protect yourself and be alert to risks that can cause injury or death.