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Who Is Liable if an “Act of God” Causes a Car Accident?

Inclement weather, particularly winter snow and ice, often raise the risk of getting into a car accident. While bad weather does not excuse negligent driving, it may be raised as a defense in a personal injury lawsuit. That is why it is important to understand how Tennessee law addresses poor weather conditions in assessing an accident case.

Driver Not Responsible for Black Ice on the Highway

Here is a recent example. The plaintiff in this case was driving on U.S. Route 25E in Tennessee early one morning. There was black ice on the road—that is, a thin coating of ice that is transparent and therefore not immediately visible to motorists. After hitting the black ice, the plaintiff’s car slid off the road. Moments later, a second car, driven by the defendant, slid on “essentially the same spot” and collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle.

The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging her negligence caused damage to his car. The defendant claimed her vehicle never hit the plaintiff’s car, and even if it did, any damage was the result of “an act of God,” (i.e., the black ice), not any negligent act on her part. Accordingly, the defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit.

A federal judge in Knoxville agreed. (The case was heard in federal court, rather than state court, because the parties reside in different states.) Applying Tennessee law, the judge said the plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts from which a jury could find the defendant liable for the accident. The judge credited the defendant’s testimony she had traveled several miles without running into any ice, and she was “operating her vehicle in a manner and at a speed that is consistent with what a reasonable and prudent person would do under similar circumstances.”

Indeed, the plaintiff did not dispute this. His case rested on the fact the defendant’s car skidded on the black ice after his car did. But as the judge explained, it “is a well-settled principle of [Tennessee] law that negligence cannot be implied simply from skidding.” Ultimately, the judge concluded this was an “unavoidable accident” and the defendant did not breach any “standard of care” owed to the plaintiff or any other driver on the road that morning. This was, as the defendant argued, an “act of God,” or as the judge described it, “the result of forces of nature that were uncontrolled and uninfluenced by the power of man.”

Need to Speak With a Personal Injury Lawyer?

As noted above, road conditions caused by bad weather is not a defense when a person’s negligent driving causes a car accident. But as the case above illustrates, a plaintiff must do more than offer proof an accident occurred. There must also be sufficient evidence demonstrating a defendant’s recklessness or negligence above and beyond natural conditions outside of either party’s control.

If you have been in an accident and need advice on how to proceed, you should consult with an experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today to speak with someone about your case.

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