A 130-car pileup that stretched over a half-mile of ice-covered highway left 6 people dead and dozens injured in Fort Worth, Texas.
The pileup occurred as overnight freezing rain and sleet caused dangerous driving conditions on Interstate 35 during the height of the morning commute on February 11, 2021.
“The scene we saw today is really one unlike probably any of us have ever seen and we pray to God we never see again,” said Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes.
One driver who barely avoided the crash reported that “it was literally like stepping on an ice rink,” when he exited his vehicle on the highway.
Though it’s unclear exactly how the accident started, videos posted to social media show semi-trailers and cars sliding into each other, some of them flying through the air and landing on top of other vehicles.
“It appears at this point in the investigation, which is still very preliminary, that ice was a factor,” Noakes said.
Who’s at fault when bad weather causes an accident?
All drivers on the road have a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming others on the road. What is reasonable in ideal weather is not reasonable in poor weather. In other words, drivers must maintain a level of care appropriate to the weather conditions.
Although it may seem unfair, the person who causes an accident in poor weather conditions is responsible for the resulting damages even if poor weather was a significant contributing factor.
For example, if you’re driving along a road and hit a patch of ice that causes you to slide into the adjacent lane and strike a vehicle, you’re responsible for the damages even though you’d probably like to blame the ice.
What makes a multi-car pileup more complicated than other car accidents?
A multi-car pileup (sometimes called a chain reaction accident) involves 3 or more vehicles and begins when 2 vehicles collide. The speed at which other vehicles on the road are traveling makes the subsequent collisions difficult to avoid. The other vehicles are unable to stop in time or drive around the collision and a chain reaction occurs.
If you’re injured in a multi-car pileup and you want to file a lawsuit or an insurance claim, first you’re going to have to prove liability using the legal theory of negligence.
Determining who is negligent will require you to determine which driver’s carelessness started the accident, or which drivers’ carelessness contributed to the accident.
There is a general rule of the road that will guide your determination of who’s at fault. Drivers are required to keep a safe distance between their car and the car in front of them. The distance should be sufficient so that the rear driver can stop safely even if the driver in front of them stops suddenly in inclement weather. For that reason, a car that rear-ends another car is almost always at fault.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example using the following vehicles traveling in a single lane headed west:
Adam ← Bob ← Cathy ← Dennis
Adam is traveling 50 miles per hour when he crosses black ice which causes him to lose control. He slams on his brakes and comes to a stop in the middle of the highway. Bob, driving a safe distance behind Adam, is able to stop in time. However, Cathy, who is driving behind Bob, is unable to stop in time and slams into Bob—pushing his vehicle into Adam’s car. Dennis, who is driving behind Cathy, is unable to stop in time and rear-ends Cathy.
Adam is injured in the accident and wants to file a lawsuit.
Who’s liable? Who should he sue?
Generally, in this scenario, Cathy would be liable because she was following too closely behind Bob and caused him to crash into Adam. Dennis may also be partially liable if hitting Cathy caused further damage to Adam. Both Cathy and Dennis might consider arguing that Adam was partially responsible for the accident for driving too fast for the icy conditions.
Notably, Cathy can also sue Dennis for damages he may have caused to her when he rear-ended her. Bob is the only party in this scenario who is not liable for any damages.
Now, you can imagine how complicated determining fault is in the case of a 130-car pileup. Lawyers have to untangle the mess by deposing all the drivers, talking to witnesses, reviewing security footage, and hiring crash reconstruction experts.
In most states, insurance claims are filed against the party responsible for the accident. Practically speaking, you probably won’t have any idea who’s responsible immediately after a multi-car pileup. For this reason, it’s usually best to file a claim with your own insurance company. Your insurance company will then conduct an investigation to determine who’s liable.
Although you can work with your insurance company without a lawyer, we strongly recommend hiring an attorney if you’ve suffered a serious injury. With multiple parties potentially at fault and multiple parties trying to place blame on each other, an attorney, unlike an insurance company, can represent your interests first and foremost.