An often overlooked area for legal and civil actions is the role the forensic meteorologist plays in reviewing Historical Weather Data. Advice and historical references can play a large part in the reconstruction of conditions at specific times and places from the records available. Interpretation of these records can illuminate local weather conditions that may have an effect on matters of law. In three scenarios below different sources will be referenced to show how such reconstructions may be done.
Slip and Fall
In Olympia, WA on Tuesday, the conditions are light rain and 34 degrees, F. On Wednesday morning, the weather is clear and the temperature is 20 F. The plaintiff is crossing on ice, in a parking lot, falls, breaking an arm. He sues the landlord for not putting down salt.
A review of local conditions, from the NOAA, and the Weather Underground, will provide basic and incremental data for the time and place.
There will be many other factors relating to this case including the limits, or lack of, liability, the rules in place in the city regarding who is responsible for clearing such areas and the ability of the responsible party to remove or alleviate the extant hazards. Such limits can and do, vary widely by state and city.
Snow on the Highway
In this scenario, on Monday afternoon it snows 4″ in Brewster, WA. That evening, at 8:00 PM a car spins out and crashes causing injuries. The plaintiff sues the state D.O.T. because the snow was not removed. The task at hand is to determine how much snow remained on the roadway at the time of the accident.
Using the same tools as above it is possible to rebuild the conditions along that particular stretch of highway. What must also be factored in however, and that is out of the hands and expertise of the meteorologist, are the facts which may have distracted, impaired or otherwise handicapped the driver.
In most states, snow removal is prioritized by need and location. This often leaves the driver to determine safe conditions and places responsibility, for a large part, on the driver. Speed is often a factor in such cases and a thorough investigation by the local or state police will bear in large part on the outcome.
Airplane Crash- Historical Weather
It’s December in Ellensburg, WA at 4:30 PM a small aircraft is preparing to take off to fly to Seattle. Take off temperature is 34 degrees F, with a report of light rain mixed with snow. The aircraft crashes. Our job is to estimate the conditions at the 7,000 foot level required to cross the Cascade Mountains.
There are quite a few resources available for this task and one of the best is Aviation Weather Center and the FAA weather briefing information. This scenario is even more dependent upon the personal responsibility of the pilot, the type and equipment on his aircraft and his personal skills. Liability towards the aircraft manufacturer could be a factor but is unlikely and would be vigorously defended during litigation.
Article written by Robert Morthorst and edited by Operational Meteorologist Michael Fagin