Are Drivers Liable for Ice and Snow on Their Cars?

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Just about everyone who’s ever lived in a cold climate has performed the winter ritual of getting up early to scrape snow and ice from their windshield.  Bundled against freezing winds at six in the morning, we grin and bear this unpleasant task because we know that if we didn’t scrape our windshields, we wouldn’t be able to see the road ahead of us. We understand that keeping our windshields clear of debris is vital to the safety of both ourselves and our fellow motorists, so we do it dutifully and without question.  But while we always clear our windshields and mirrors, we sometimes ignore the tops and sides of our vehicles, not realizing it could become a road safety hazard.  Unfortunately, it is a safety hazard — it can even kill. A Philadelphia car accident lawyer can answer the question: are drivers liable for snow and ice on their cars?

Flying Ice Shatters Windshield in New Hampshire

On Thursday, March 13th, 2014, Nick Metalious was driving down Route 4 in Manchester, New Hampshire. His son Tyler was riding alongside him in the passenger seat, and one of Tyler’s friends accompanied them in the rear.

Suddenly, a massive impact jolted the front of the car.  Metalious later recalled, “The only way I can describe it is, you are sitting in there and someone takes a bat and just thud, thud.”  A wedge of ice had dislodged itself from another vehicle, and now, it was lodged into Metalious’ windshield.  Fortunately, the windshield was able to withstand the impact, but was beginning to fragment threateningly into a spider’s web of lightning-bolt cracks. Unhurt but alarmed, Metalious stopped his vehicle, called 911, and drove to the local police department in Northwood.

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Metalious had been traveling at about 50 mph when the chunk of wayward ice slammed into his windshield. Any faster, and the ice could have done more than lodged in the glass — it could have penetrated all the way through and killed him.  Had Metalious been killed by the ice, his passengers (and all the other vehicles sharing the road) would have been in grave danger as the driverless vehicle careened out of control.

While Metalious expressed relief that no one had been seriously hurt — his son, Tyler, was cut on one finger — he was upset that the incident had occurred.  After all, as Metalious says, “The laws are out there to protect people, and if they are not being followed, there’s only so much we can do.”

Jessica’s Law Makes Icy Cars Illegal in New Hampshire

The law is Metalious referring to is known as Jessica’s Law.  Like Metalious, Jessica Smith, for whom the law is named, was also a victim of ice flying from another vehicle. Sadly, she wasn’t as lucky.

In 1999, 20-year-old Smith was traveling along Route 202 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, when a piece of ice freed itself from the roof of an oncoming 18-wheeler. Unlike the ice in Metalious’ case, this particular piece could hardly be described as a “chunk” or a “fragment.”  It was nine feet long.

The massive spear of ice struck a vehicle near Smith.  The vehicle lost control, slammed into Smith’s vehicle, and killed her.

No criminal charges were pressed, because no laws had been violated.  There was simply nothing in the New Hampshire legislature regulating the maintenance of ice accumulating on vehicles. Smiths’ grieving parents lobbied local lawmakers, and the result was the birth of Jessica’s Law.  Under Jessica’s Law, drivers who neglect to keep their vehicles clear of ice can be fined between $250 and $500 for a first offense.  For repeat offenses, drivers could be fined as much as $1,000, and could lose their license for up to a year.

Unfortunately, drivers in New Hampshire don’t always abide by Jessica’s Law, as Metalious’ frightening experience makes plain.  What’s more, Jessica’s Law is particular to New Hampshire. So what about drivers in other states?  What happens if you have a car or truck accident in Pennsylvania?

Who is Liable When Ice Hits Your Car in Pennsylvania or New Hampshire?

If you live in New Hampshire, Jessica’s Law provides that drivers who fail to keep their vehicles clean can be charged with negligence.  But if you’re a resident of another state, you may have a tougher time proving that the other driver is liable.  In Tennessee, for example, demonstrating liability is all but impossible — even in a situation exactly like Metalious’.

News affiliate Micca Terrell was traveling along Highway 12 in Ashland City, Tennessee with her daughter Zoe when a piece of ice dislodged itself from another vehicle, slammed into her windshield, and sent a web of ominous cracks through the glass.  “It scared the ever-livin’ lovin’ out of me,” Terrell remembers.  “I was worried it would come on through and just take me out.”

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Once Terrell had gotten over the initial scare, she realized she had incurred hundreds of dollars in damage, so she turned to the insurance company.  But Todd Binkley, agent for Erie Insurance, had bad news for Terrell. “It’s weather-related,” Binkley said. “That person is not liable.”  (He added, “Hopefully you have comprehensive coverage because that will cover it.”)  Binkley also said that Terrell’s incident was not considered driver negligence.

Drivers in North Carolina may be similarly out of luck.  In the opinion of Wanda Copley, North Carolina attorney, “I think that this would be considered unavoidable because of weather, similar to if you were on I-40 and a rock bounces off another car and hits your windshield, causing a crack.  Therefore, you could not hold the other driver liable.”

Connecticut, on the other hand, is following New Hampshire’s lead.  Connecticut observes what’s known as the “Ice Missile Law,” which says drivers can be fined up to $1,250 for negligent ice and snow maintenance on their cars, trucks, and other automobiles.  Washington, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have adopted similar laws. Washington drivers can be pulled over but not fined, while drivers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania can be fined up to $1,000.

If you or a loved one has been hurt by ice flying from another car, Pennsylvania law holds the other driver accountable for negligent vehicle maintenance.  For a free case evaluation with an experienced personal injury attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online today.

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