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Storm Chasing and the Legal System

Will Wilkens

I wanted to share an experience I had a few years ago and find out how many other people had a similar experience. On August 6, 2005 I chased a severe thunderstorm in Perris, California, during a significant monsoon event. The storm produced a microburst with straight line winds that snapped 16 power poles along a 1 mile stretch of road in the northeast side of town. One of the poles crushed a vehicle traveling along the road and trapped its driver. He sustained major injuries and had to have one of his legs amputated. I did not witness the accident, but found out about the incident later on the news. I also found out I was within 1/4 mile of the incident at exactly the time it happened. I had video taped the chase and posted several frame grabs of the video on my personal website photo gallery.

About 7 months later, in March, '06 I was contacted via email by a claims investigator for Southern California Edison who was searching for eyewitnesses of the storm event. He had found my photos and blog through a Google search using keywords related to the storm and the location and date of the event.

Initially he was asking for a copy of the video, which he wanted to purchase, so he could use it in his investigation. I, being naive at the time, thought it was only about the damage to the poles. He never disclosed anything more about the case, and I never asked any details either. However, I did agree to meet him and show him the video, as a courtesy.

The viewing took place at my home, and that's when he dropped me the bomb and disclosed that his investigation was part of a law suit against Edison by the injured man. The investigator was working for Edison and wanted to hire me as an expert witness for Edison. The plaintiff was claiming the power poles were old and neglected and failed to withstand the 40mph gusts the plaintiff claimed the storm produced. The 40mph gust was based on data recorded at a RAWS station 5 miles away. Power poles are supposed to be rated to 65mph and Edison was defending themselves that the incident was an act of God. Although I felt sorry for the guy who lost his leg, I was confident the winds in my vicinity did exceed 65mph. The storm was that bad. However, I declined to be an expert witness for Edison because I was absolutely not qualified to be an "expert" witness. I referred the investigator to the San Diego NWS office for any storm data for the event. I also knew I was screwed. I was set up. I knew what was about to come.

Sooo, to make a long story short, I received a subpeona and participated in a deposition, representing Edison, in August, '06, a year after the incident. I had to surrender the original copy of my video, and endure the longest, most grueling 9 hours of my life, detailing every minute by minute move I made from the time I left my house until I arrived back home. I was grilled by the plaintiff's legal team, almost to the point of humiliation and shame for even being a storm chaser. I became openely frustrated at times and was angry at Edison for putting me into that situation, especially since I had no personal stake in the settlement. Edison offered to pay me compensation for my time, but I declined because if it ever went to trial I did not want to sit on the stand and have my credibility raked over the coals because I accepted money. I just wanted the nightmare to be over.

6 months later, in February, '07, Edison settled with the plaintiff without going to trial, and I was notified by Edison that my statements along with my video was evidence that the storm was indeed severe enough beyond the plaintiff's claims, and that helped Edison negotiate a settlement in their favor (much much lower). They thanked me for my help.

Poor guy who lost his leg. I felt absolutely terrible.

So, my question I present to you all: has anyone here ever gone through a similar experience with the legal system related to their storm chasing? Would love to hear your stories.

BTW, here is my video of that event on YouTube:
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No, I've never even heard of anything remotely similar happening to a chaser. I'd say you were in the right place/wrong time, and your experience was one-in-a-million. I think what made the situation unique is the victim sued. Lots of people are injured by the same storms we all chase, but it's an "Act of God" in almost every case, and we move on.

This brings up an interesting question: The other night a few of us were discussing the old "claiming hail damage" debate. If chaser A purposely core-punched and was hammered, while chaser B was trying to avoid hail and accidentally got hammered, does it make chaser B wrong for claiming damage? Do we punish a person for pre-accident agendas?

You could easily take this guy's situation, throw a few chasers in front/behind him, and say that the chasers shouldn't get to make a claim (when the guy did) because they were out there chasing. But of course it's never the intention of a chaser to have a power pole land on them and injure them...so do we still punish the chaser (who is truly a victim in this situation) simply because they were out there chasing? Why was the guy out there? was he driving to the grocery store? Going to the track? Going out for dinner?

When do we stop accepting that bad things happening are always the victim's fault? Insurance companies never do; once you need them, then you're screwed. If your houe is hit by a tornado and they have to (do their job) and make a claim, then it's your fault for living there. Tornadoes aren't like floods, huricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, or mudslides....they are quite random, and impossible to predict on a large scale. Yet insurance companies still punish tornado victims.

Oh well, that turned into a longer rant than I planned for a Friday morning...
BTW, Edison replaced all the power poles (not just the damaged ones) on that entire 2 mile stretch of road with steel poles. No more wood snapping. They weren't going to let that happen again there...... now, what to do about the rest of the 659,427,253 wooden poles they still have across the nation....
I've been contacted by attorneys a couple of times to provide expert testimony about lightning strike events to buildings that were damaged, but in both cases nothing ever came of it.

My position is that if I have evidence that would vindicate somebody in a dispute, why not provide it? If my footage can establish the truth in the case so that the dispute can be resolved fairly, I see no reason to withhold it. As with any use of my footage though, I would charge for it. If my video is going to result in someone either saving or getting millions, it's only appropriate I get paid for my time - the lawyers for either side certainly aren't doing it for free.

My opinion on the power pole case is that while the victim's situation is tragic, there is no reason for Edison, or anyone, to bear the responsibility if the storm winds were indeed as strong as described. I know that opinion seems to be sympathetic to the 'big corporation' while ignoring the 'little guy' in peril, but it's not fair for Edison to be responsible for something they had no control over. I agree with Shane - people are always looking to blame someone, but sometimes there is no one to blame.
I am sorry to hear about the hassle of going to court. I guess that is a risk of storm chasing and making the images public.

To me, the biggest problem is getting a subpeona. That means time off from work and lost revenue. If the court case takes too long, one may get dragged in the following day and more lost worktime. Sometimes, there is legal maneuvering and the case is postponed at the last minute. One has already lost a day and then faces the prospect of another missed day. In my line of work, I can't at the last minute come back to work and not lose a day. I have found that many lawyers will allow a deposition that can be done after work hours. They come by with a courtroom reporter and under oath, one answers questions. There have been several times that I have been under threat of being dragged into court. I will say, you drag me into court and I will be a HOSTILE WITNESS. Instead, I suggest that I will happily do a deposition after work hours. So far, I have avoided going to court though I have done several depositions.

I don't think there is a way of avoiding the risk with storm chasing unless one never puts chase images or video online and doesn't tell others about chasing a specific event.

Bill Hark
Everyone so far has really provided some great feedback. I really appreciate it. Helps me make a more clearer judgement in the event I am put into a similar situation again in the future.

I just want to make it clear that I felt compassion for both sides. More so for the injured gentleman, but I do agree that it was beyond Edison's control and I needed to convey that to the plaintiff's legal team the best way that I could.
I'm just curious what Edison could have done to have prevented this? I too feel bad for the guy that was injured, but I don't believe it is fair for him to lay blame on Edison for the extent of his injuries by any means, unless he could somehow prove gross negligence on Edison's behalf and what they "could have" done to prevent this situation. Which, in this case doesn't sound possible. They settled out of court, which is a bit strange since any judge with a head on their shoulders would have been easily able to have determined that there was nothing the company could have done to prevent the situation...but then again it is the California court system and they do have a track record of "whacky" decisions by mid-western standards. It sounds like it did turn out for the best though since the injured party (probably) got his medical bills paid and the company was able to reduce their loss as well.
They settled out of court, which is a bit strange since any judge with a head on their shoulders would have been easily able to have determined that there was nothing the company could have done to prevent the situation...

I'm no lawyer, nor do I understand the specifics of civil trials, but could it have been possible that they settled out of court because even though the judge may have sided with Edison, that a jury would have sided with the victim? If it were a jury trial, and not a bench trial, I can see them wanting to settle out of court instead. It's very easy to manipulate a jury with technical misdirection. I can see it being nearly impossible for a defense expert witness to convince a jury that a microburst can cause severe wind conditions in one place and the wind conditions be totally different in another. I think they considered their audience and thought perhaps it was a no win situation. There could have been other factors involved, but that is definitely the scenario I would look at when a negligence suit is based on technical data that is not fully understood by the general public. It may have cost more in the long run to file appeals, etc, than what the settlement was.
I think they obviously settled out of court because Edison lawyers knew that lawsuits for the injured party are easier to prove than a criminal trial = 'lower proof standard'
They also knew they would have to pay out a much larger sum if it ever got that far.
What I found amazing about this case, is that there are lawyers that deal specifically with weather-related injury cases that have degrees in Met. All they would need is the stats on the weather for that reason and some visible proof that can bee seen for a jury. If that is the kind of lawyer that represented this case - I wouldn't feel too bad/had; he just knew how to find his witness - that's all.
What I don't understand, is why they accepted this evidence without any other observer mentioned on the behalf of the injured party. Did anybody else see it all come down the way he claims it did?
Lawyers are about assigning blame or removing it, evidence is about the ability to tell the difference between what is claimed and what can be proved...
Rob, good question you ask. The answer is YES...there were several other witnesses on that same road at the time the poles blew over. All except one were deposed already before me, and I was told they described the experience as "intense howling wind and blinding rain, could not see the road, then the poles crashing down". I guess they wanted or needed someone with some weather background to verify.
Rob, good question you ask. The answer is YES...there were several other witnesses on that same road at the time the poles blew over. All except one were deposed already before me, and I was told they described the experience as "intense howling wind and blinding rain, could not see the road, then the poles crashing down". I guess they wanted or needed someone with some weather background to verify.

You mean - they COULDN'T see the road - but COULD see the poles snap?

Eric, you are absolutely right! During my deposition I tried to explain how microbursts can be very localized and a station 5 miles away recording a certain wind speed is not necessarily recording the wind speed of any point within the microburst 5 miles away. He followed up with a "well how do you know?"...and then a "why" and then another "how do you know?"......
Good point Rob! LOL...maybe the rain let up at the moment the poles hit the ground, I don't know....