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When to Call
a Weather Investigator


By: Peter Muldavin

 

Picture yourself in the following situation. Your company (carrier) has insured the defendant in a slip and fall case in which the plaintiff claims to have fallen on an icy sidewalk. The plaintiff seeks significant personal injury damages. Your insured's defense is that the icy conditions had developed just prior to the accident and that he had no time to clear the sidewalk. If the situation could be scientifically documented and proven, the carrier would have limited or no liability of the insured for the damages sought by the plaintiff.

The carrier's claim manager asks you to get documentation of the weather condition that can be used as evidence in support of this "act of God" defense. What do you do? This article will explore the best means to fulfill your assignment in a way that will best help your case and whether it is best to obtain weather records on your own vs. utilizing the services of a consulting meteorologist.

As an insurance fraud investigator, it is very helpful to know sources of such documentation. The National Climatic Data Center, or NCDC, in Asheville, N.C., is where most official National Weather Service, or NWS, observations are archived. While many insurance companies obtain weather records on their own directly from the NCDC, an increasing number of claims professionals routinely employ the services of consulting meteorologists to not only supply the weather information, but to interpret it as well.

 

Incoming High and Low Pressure


Official weather reports that you can obtain on your own will usually be observations taken at an official NWS observation station, usually at an airport. Typically, what is provided by the NCDC is the monthly "Local Climatological Data," or LCD, from the airport nearest to the site of the accident. This publication includes a chart of daily summaries of basic weather readings, supplemented, in most cases, by three-hour detailed readings and hourly precipitation data for the month. Additionally, you may be sent some hourly observations, often in handwritten meteorological codes. Even though you get a decoder sheet, have you ever tried to figure out these arcane readings? It is hard enough to make anything out of these reports let alone decide if they are valid for an accident that happened 15 or 20 miles from the airport.

If the loss location is some distance from the weather station, it is probable that the temperatures, precipitation pattern, wind speeds and ground conditions will be different than what is shown in the weather report you have obtained. Additionally, elevation, topographical differences and proximity to the ocean or another large body of water can be influencing factors. I can almost guarantee that if your case goes to trial, the other side, if astute, will try to catch you on these points at every opportunity. In such a case, a consulting forensic meteorologist will be required to give you an expert opinion as to what the weather was "to a reasonable degree of meteorological certainty" at the loss site. So, even though you may know how to get weather data directly from the government and thus save your firm a few dollars, as you can see, there could be a downside to this course of action.


Seeing Beyond
the Clouds

Here is where the hiring of a consulting meteorologist becomes invaluable. A qualified weather expert will not rely on just the LCD. They will obtain detailed hourly surface observations as well as dozens of additional weather products including upper air balloon soundings, surface weather maps, Doppler radar charts, satellite photos, and astronomical data available from the NCDC and other government agencies such as individual state climatological offices, flood control districts, air quality agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers. Thousands of small towns, cities and government agencies take weather readings that help fill in geographical gaps. Moreover, since most of this data is archived in a coded format, and since most accidents do not happen right where the weather measuring instruments are placed, an expert meteorologist is required, in most cases, to decode and interpolate the data. He or she can then try to determine what the weather conditions were at the scene of the accident based on observations taken at various surrounding areas. An expert opinion can then be rendered "to a reasonable degree of meteorological certainty" as to what the weather and ground conditions were.

Oftentimes fraud examiners who obtain weather records on their own, contract my company to ask for help in interpreting and understanding the weather records. In about 75 percent of these cases we have to obtain additional weather information at additional cost and time to our client. The SIU person contacting us simply did not acquire, or know how to acquire the complete set of weather records for his case, which were needed to render an opinion. In those claims where weather conditions are an issue of fact and are in dispute, by hiring a consulting meteorologist from the start you will have complete and correct data and advice for your case from day one. Additionally, you will save yourself time, and your firm and client money.


Choosing the Best Expert

Obviously any weather expert you hire must be qualified as such, usually by virtue of a college degree in meteorology or atmospheric science. You can contact the American Meteorological Society of Boston, Mass. for a listing of meteorologists. Their list however, is quite extensive. To help in choosing, here are a few pointers. Choose a company that:

• Has been around for at least a few years

• Has several full-time meteorologists on staff

• Specializes in forensic meteorology

While you may be tempted to seek out a well-known radio or television personality, be aware that you default any forensic work they do would be "moonlighting" for them. You may not have any control over their availability for testimony or reports. Additionally, a one-person company may not be able or willing to offer you the full range of services you require such as:

• Official government certified NWS weather records

• Phone consultations

• Plain-language narrative reports

• Depositions (in court or telephone conference)

• Expert testimony

• Accident site visits

• Astronomical data (time or sunset, civil twilight, etc.)

• Marine data (wave heights, tides, etc.)


Why a Weather Expert?

"My firm does not handle personal injury. Why would I need a weather expert?" This is a question I am frequently asked. While slip and fall cases are an obvious scenario in which a weather expert may be needed, look over the following list for other types of cases where weather can be a factor:

• Motor vehicle accidents

• Airplane crashes

• Property damage (hail, lightning, floods, etc.)

• Recreational boating accidents

• Shipping cargo losses

• Product liability

• Crop damage

• Historical studies (one in 100-year storm, acts of God, etc.)

• Air dispersion (toxic fumes, etc.)

• Position of sun/moon at any given time and place

• Workman's compensation claims (weather related injury claims)

• Criminal investigations (witness credibility, establishing time of death.)


Avoid the Storm

The Internet as we all know, has proven to be the most significant advance in the dissemination of information since the invention of the printing press and later, radio and television. When it comes to obtaining past weather records, the various databases available on-line (including the NCDC) are not being left behind. The problem facing an insurance fraud investigator in using the Internet is twofold. You may not be able to interpret the data properly, and you may not know if you are getting all of the relevant information needed for your case. So, even if you get the weather reports this way, you will probably have to go to a weather expert for further help. In the long run, if weather is important to your case, you will save time and money by using a consulting meteorologist from the beginning.

Peter Muldavin is a partner with Metro Weather Service Inc., of Valley Stream, N.Y. He has been active in educating paralegals on the value of consulting meteorology for the past 16 years. If you have a comment or question for Muldavin, he can be reached at 800-488-7866 or visit his web site at www.metroweather.com.

   
   
 
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