While crashes due to inclement weather are not uncommon across the United States, I recently learned of an incident here in Texas, which prompted me to write a little more in-depth about the phenomenon. In wet, foggy conditions, a tractor-trailer hydroplaned just outside of Midland. It entered oncoming traffic and collided with a passenger vehicle, killing its driver, Rose Contreras, and seriously injuring a passenger, Josiah Contreras.
Investigating authorities reported that the semi trailer appeared to have been moving at unsafe speeds, given the wet road conditions. While this certainly sounds like human error was the cause of the crash, many times defense attorneys will allege that the rain, a natural phenomenon, is truly to blame.
The Act of God Defense: Weather or Not?
Given that my firm handles a great many car and truck accident claims, we are no strangers to the influence weather can have on a collision. Texas DPS noted that on the day in question it was foggy and rainy, and the Freightliner allegedly was traveling at a speed deemed unsafe for the wet road conditions. Collected weather data from that weekend seems to confirm that conditions were foggy and wet around the time of the collision, culminating in full-scale thunderstorms later that morning.
In cases where inclement weather is a factor, one defense often attempted by trucking companies and their insurers is the Act of God defense. The Texas Pattern Jury Charge defines the exact language dictated to a jury when evaluating such a defense:
"If an occurrence is caused solely by an 'act of God', it is not caused by the negligence of any person. An occurrence is caused by an act of God if it is caused directly and exclusively by the violence of nature, without human intervention or cause, and could not have been prevented by reasonable foresight or care."
An Act of God is therefore an unavoidable causal phenomenon of nature, at least for the purposes of legal definition. It must be sudden, unforeseeable, and violent enough to be harmful in and of itself, and the damages it causes cannot involve any human contribution. Act of God is an inferential rebuttal defense in Texas courts, but there must be some evidence to support the idea that the natural phenomenon that allegedly caused the damages could not have been reasonably foreseen.
A sudden lightning strike from a clear blue sky or a sinkhole that opens in the earth beneath a vehicle might fall within this category; in either of these situations, the defendant might not have had time to take any preparatory or remedial action against possible damages. If a tornado touches down and flings my car into someone else's, it might be possible to avoid personal liability, since I couldn't have predicted it. However, in most situations it is too difficult to prove that the "violence of nature" was unavoidable. Another example of that occurred elsewhere over the same weekend, when an ice storm led to several casualties and a number of injuries.
Instances of commercial trucking crashes often involve the trucking firm's insurance company stepping in to investigate possible claims against the policies they wrote for drivers. Because the insurance companies are businesses, they will endeavor to protect their bottom lines. This is only natural; if they never investigated or contested claims, they would not only fall victim to occasional fraud, but they would also hemorrhage money.
To protect their assets, insurers will argue that drivers are not to blame--or failing that, at least mitigate the amount of responsibility assigned to the driver. Act of God had to be rigorously defined by the legal system to keep it from being abused as a defense, since God seldom deigns to defend Himself in secular courts. Thus, while "The roads were wet" is certainly an argument for exercising increased care behind the wheel, it is not a reason to excuse an incautious driver if he loses control and hurts someone.
Personal Accountability is Always Important.
Every motorist has an obligation to operate a vehicle in a manner that minimizes its threat to other motorists. These considerations are magnified when driving in inclement weather; it is not unreasonable to expect others to travel at a slower rate of speed, engage their headlights, maintain extended following distance, and proceed with caution on the roads. This reasonable standard of care is escalated for people who drive professionally. In Midland, the truck driver could reasonably have foreseen that a wet road would make driving conditions more hazardous, and adjusted his speed accordingly.
Professional drivers encounter similar circumstances on the road all the time, and based on the weather patterns described on the timeline, it can't be said that the wet roads were a sudden and surprising hazard. The Texas DPS indicated that the semi-trailer was traveling at unsafe speeds, suggesting that appropriate care was not exercised by its driver, resulting in a hydroplane.
In this situation, human negligence seems more likely to be the culprit. In no way am I suggesting that the trucker acted with malicious intent--only that he may not have fully weighed the possible consequences of his decision not to slow down on the road. Wet conditions are easily observable and generally take time to build to hazardous levels, so it's unlikely that any defensive attempt to blame the weather would gain much traction in court, and quite rightly--it's not God's action, but human inaction, that led to this tragedy.