Scheele v. Rains – Car Accident Following Prescribed Burn

The North Carolina General Assembly allows for the periodic, prescribed burning of forest lands as a way to effectively manage the natural ecosystem. It is often done on federal and state lands, but may also be prescribed on private lands as well.smokeroad-300x225

Still, these burns have to be carefully monitored, particularly when they are conducted near public roadways. That’s because the thick smoke that can permeate the air as a result can result in low visibility or non-visibility for motorists.

That’s a car accident waiting to happen.

If a crash does happen, can injured persons collect against those involved in the prescribed burn? 

The answer will depend on a number of factors. Plaintiffs will still need to show that those involved were negligent – that is, they failed to exercise reasonable care in their actions when they owed plaintiff a responsibility to do so.

The case of Scheele v. Rains was a car accident lawsuit before the Nebraska Supreme Court that involved a prescribed burn that resulted in severely reduced visibility along a two-lane highway.

The adjacent land was owned by one of defendants in the case, who was required by the federal government to burn vegetation off his field every three years. On the day of the accident, defendant conducted two prescribed burns – one in a field nearby and another one directly along the highway. He received fire department approval for these burns, though there was question about whether he followed all proper procedures.

The first burn went fine. During the second burn, however, the wind shifted and smoke started to drift over the roadway. Defendant contacted the fire department to respond.

Meanwhile, plaintiff was driving her sport utility vehicle along the highway on her way back to work. The smoke, she said, suddenly became very thick. She slowed down but continued on until she was forced to stop because a car ahead of her had stopped. She could only see the brake lights of the car ahead. Suddenly, smoke was coming into her vehicle through the vents. She was having trouble breathing and feared for her life.

She could see in front of the car ahead. She couldn’t back up because there were cars behind her. She was afraid to go right because it seemed that’s where the fire was coming from. So she slowly inched into the opposing lane in an attempt to pass the car ahead of her.

However, she ended up hitting the car ahead of her before colliding with a speeding semi-truck hauling an over-sized load.

Plaintiff was injured.

She collected workers’ compensation benefits from her employer, but later sued the truck driver, the truck driving company and the owner of the land involved in the prescribed burn.

She alleged the land owner was per se negligent (negligent as a matter of law) because he hadn’t fully adhered to all regulatory requirements for prescribed burns. She also alleged the truck driver was pro se negligent, as he was cited by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) for a host of violations related to the accident, including continuing to drive when he didn’t have at least a half mile of visibility, speeding, having an inoperable electric horn and not having proper warning flags for his load.

But the courts noted legal precedent holding that violation of the law alone isn’t evidence of pro se negligence.

The case went to trial and jurors determined plaintiff was as much if not more at-fault for the accident as defendants because she had entered the opposing lane of traffic. Because of this contributory negligence, she was barred from collecting anything.

She appealed. The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed, finding that while there was evidence to support her claim, there was also evidence that supported defendants’ claims and it was not unreasonable that jurors reached the conclusion they did.

Plaintiff still had the workers’ compensation benefits, but she was not able to collect further damages from others involved.

This is a case that shows sometimes, evidence may be interpreted in several different ways. It’s imperative to have a skilled personal injury lawyer who can make a strong case to jurors.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Scheele v. Rains , March 4, 2016, Nebraska Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Fridman v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill. – Bad Faith Insurance Law, March 15, 2016, Asheville Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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