Liability on the frozen road

December 6, 2011

The recent storm that  announced the official start of winter here in Minnesota (home of the Reference Attorneys), means it’s time to start preparing for the inevitable slip-sliding slow commute and the fear that you may find yourself in a ditch if you’re not careful.  Minnesota received its first appreciable snowfall of the season just in the last few weeks; yes East Coasters, you beat us to it.  A sampling of the news coverage from the Duluth News Tribune:

The Minnesota State Patrol reported 200 crashes on highways statewide between noon and 2:45 p.m. Saturday. There were 25 injury accidents, but no serious injuries or fatalities.

2011 WLNR 24077968

I ran a few quick searches on WestlawNext, and at least based on the appellate case, it looks like you may be more likely to see a ticket for reckless or careless driving that for something more mundane like failure to yield or stop.

I ran both of the following queries in Minnesota and related Federal materials.

negligen! careless reckless /5 driv! operat! /p slick slippery icy wet snow! /5 road street pavement highway freeway ramp intersection

fail! /10 stop yield /p slick slippery icy wet snow! /5 road street pavement highway freeway ramp intersection

The first result brings me back 69 cases.  The second, only 11.

Interestingly, though, “evidence of skidding on a slippery road, standing alone, is not enough to establish negligence.”  Svercl v. Jamison, 252 Minn. 8, 9, 88 N.W.2d 839, 841 (1958).  The court went on to explain:

To hold otherwise would be to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur in a class of cases where it obviously does not belong. However, in many of the cases of this type, the manner of driving prior to skidding and the control of the car both before and after skidding present a situation where an inference of negligence is permissible. Here, defendant was aware of the fact that there were icy spots on the road and in particular around these curves. He had encountered such ice on the trip to Grand Rapids. He found ice on the curves that he previously had been able to negotiate.

The court concluded:

While evidence of skidding alone is not enough to establish negligence, evidence of speed, the care exercised in controlling the car, knowledge of existing dangerous conditions, and the failure to futher reduce speed under these conditions usually present facts from which a jury can justifiably draw an inference that defendant failed to exercise that degree of care required of him under the existing circumstances. In this case, we cannot say as a matter of law that defendant, having knowledge of the icy conditions then existing, should not have anticipated that he would be likely to slide off the road if he failed to further reduce his speed.

Id.

So it turns out that a slippery road may be enough to relieve liability, but the facts are going to have to break your way.

In fact, you may be better off facing reckless or careless driving because, according to Riley v. Lake, 1972, 295 Minn. 43, 203 N.W.2d 331, failure to yield the right-of-way is prima facie evidence of negligence under Minn. Stat. 169.96.

But in any event, you’re probably best off slowing down when the flakes start to fly.