in the following situation. Your company (carrier) has insured the defendant
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
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.
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
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
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.
the Best Expert
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
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
Plain-language narrative reports
Depositions (in court or telephone conference)
Accident site visits
Astronomical data (time or sunset, civil twilight, etc.)
Marine data (wave heights, tides, etc.)
Why a Weather Expert?
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
Property damage (hail, lightning, floods, etc.)
Recreational boating accidents
Shipping cargo losses
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.)
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.
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.