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Snow Plows On The Highways

The first Nor’easter has come and gone, dumping mostly rain but also leaving a coating of ice and snow on our roadways. The North Shore and Western Massachusetts were hardest hit. This early December storm could be the harbinger of a snowy winter as Harvey and Barry (Boston Meteorologists) predict this winter will be cold with a lot of precipitation.

Despite harsh winter weather, New Englanders do not let snowy roads stop them from their activities.  Many of us welcome the snow because it means prime conditions in the Berkshires for skiing and boarding.  Rarely is work affected as our offices usually don’t close from snow storms.  We are a hardy bunch.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is tasked with keeping the highways clean and open and reminds drivers that plow drivers have limited visibility and suggests drivers stay at least seventy feet away from plow trucks. But is that practical? Route 1, the Pike, Route 95 – all are busy and crowded highways. These roads are regularly clogged with cars and trucks, and rarely does one leave a seventy foot gap. When there is a plow convoy clearing the way it gets even more dangerous. Lots of drivers, all in a rush – trying to get past or through the convoys which slow travel and reduce the number of travel lanes – this causes accidents. Sometimes the accident is with a plow truck itself.

If you are in an accident with a snow plow, it is important to take account of the location of the accident and which road you are on because that may determine who is responsible for the accident. If you are on a major interstate like I-95, Mass DOT may be responsible. Get in an accident with a plow on Main Street or any major thoroughfare in your Town and generally the Town is responsible.  On a private street or in a private parking lot: possibly a private plow company will be responsible.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mThese differences can be important because it may determine who has the responsibility for reimbursing you for your personal injuries and damage to your car. It may also determine how you present your claim. If a private company is responsible for the plow, you may be able to file a lawsuit against the company itself. If Mass DOT or a city or town is responsible for clearing the road, then any claim you may have against the Commonwealth or City will probably be subject to the Massachusetts State Tort Claims Act. This law sets out specific rules and procedures that must be followed when suing the State or a municipality, and can be a trap for the unwary.

For example, in the case of  Knight v. Commonwealth, 46 Mass. App. Ct. 674 (1999),  Kevin Knight lost the opportunity to recover for his personal injuries against the Massachusetts Highway Department because he failed to include his personal injuries in his written presentation of his claim to MHD. Mr. Knight was hit by a plow operated by MHD. The State Tort Claims Act required that he inform the MHD in writing of his claim. Mr. Knight only included the cost of his car repairs in his written claim because he mistakenly thought that he would be able to bring another claim for his personal injuries. The State Tort Claims Statute “provides that, barring fraud,  . . . the Commonwealth, shall not be subject to multiple actions by the same plaintiff arising out of the ‘same subject matter.’” Mr. Knight accepted a settlement from the State for only his car repairs and was unable to bring a claim for his personal injuries because his personal injuries were caused by the same accident.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being in an accident with a snow plow, we suggest you immediately contact an experienced personal injury attorney to help you assess your injuries and who you may seek reimbursement from for your injuries. If the State or a municipality is responsible for the snow plow, your attorney can also help you navigate the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act.

Meanwhile let it snow but drive safely.