Neither Ice, Nor Rain, Nor Snow… Will Impart Liability On a Cautious Driver (NJ)

In this season of ice and snow, the question of whether a driver is responsible for loss of vehicle control due to these conditions is particularly timely.  In fact, the mere fact that an automobile skids on an icy roadway does not infer negligence.  Since negligence may not be presumed and must always be proven, evidence of this alone is not sufficient to support a claim.

In Howell v. Cross-Burgos, New Jersey’s Appellate Division affirmed summary judgment granted to a woman who lost control of her vehicle as she traveled down the middle lane of a highway.  She could not recall how fast she was travelling but did not believe that she had been speeding.  However, when she hit a particularly icy stretch of highway, her vehicle spun out.  It came to rest along the left shoulder of the road without making contact with anything.

The plaintiff came upon the defendant’s vehicle shortly afterwards and stopped to assist her.  He verified that she had no damage to her car and helped her move to the right shoulder of the road.  As they were about to leave the area, another vehicle lost control and sideswiped the defendant’s car.  At this point, the plaintiff began to walk down the road to give warning to other drivers when a truck lost control and hit the plaintiff.

In affirming summary judgment, the court found that there was simply no evidence of negligence on the part of the first driver.  The court recognized that even the most cautious of drivers could lose control due to icy conditions.  Unless there is evidence that the driver failed to take reasonable precautions, negligence cannot be presumed.

Although the plaintiff argued that the rescue doctrine should also implicate the driver, the court found that this doctrine only applies when the initial act that created the peril from which rescue is attempted is caused by negligence.  Here there was no such proof of negligence.

Though it would be nice to stay off the roads when weather threatens, the Court recognizes that it is not possible in our society for everyone to remain home at the slightest threat of bad weather.

For more information contact Denise Fontana Ricci at dricci@wcmlaw.com.