When the Road to Recovery Becomes the Highway to Hell
Without a doubt, one of the most rewarding aspects of owning a Land Rover is taking advantage of its strength and abilities to help others when conditions get tough. Personally, I’ve used my Discovery to get neighbors home during floods and blizzards when roads were all but impassable, and I’ve helped complete strangers out of ditches in whiteout conditions.
Now that “polar vortex” is once again on the tongues of meterologists across the greater northern parts of our country again, I’ve tossed my emergency recovery kit back in the truck in anticipation of another ugly winter.
A recent conversation, however, had me second-guessing whether I should even bother. A colleague brought up the question of who’s liable in the event something goes wrong when you voluntarily assist a stranded motorist. It’s not the kind of thing most of us think about when we pull up alongside a young mother with a toddler in a car seat, stranded hopelessly in a snow-packed ditch.
I certainly didn’t when I came upon this exact situation two years ago. Fortunately, the Nissan Altima with bald tires was easy to pull out and put back on the road (though, arguably, it didn’t belong there given the conditions) without undue incident.
But what if it hadn’t gone so easily? What if my recovery strap broke and recoiled against her windshield, injuring her? What if I latched onto the wrong part of her car and damaged it? What if pulling her car forced a catastrophic failure on my truck?
None of those things ever crossed my mind whenever I’ve stopped to help in the past, but this recent conversation really bothered me. You might think being a Good Samaritan would get you off the hook, but you’d be wrong. To get a better understanding of the risks of being Mr. Nice Guy, we consulted an insurance expert with a handful of possible scenarios to see how each situation might turn out should good intensions go awry.
In each of these scenarios, we assume you have stopped to pull a stranded car from a snowy ditch. Your vehicle is in proper operating condition, as is your recovery gear.
Scenario 1: You damage the other vehicle by incorrectly attaching the tow strap to it. Are you liable for the damage done to the car?
Answer: Yes, you may be liable for damage done to the other car by pulling on it.
Advice: Know what you’re attaching your recovery gear to. Consult the vehicle owner’s manual if you’re unsure. It may take an extra couple of minutes, but it’s better than accidentally bending a suspension arm or pulling off some superficial trim by mistake. In a worst case scenario, you could always record a short cell-phone video of the other vehicle’s owner granting you permission to recover their vehicle and accepting liability for any damages that may occur.
Scenario 2: The tow strap breaks and recoils into the other vehicle, damaging it and possibly injuring its driver or passengers. Are you liable for any damage and/or injuries?
Answer: Yes, you may be liable for vehicle damage and medical injuries.
Advice: First, remove anyone from the car that doesn’t need to be in it, even the driver depending on conditions. Next, only use gear that is in good working condition. Replace any gear that is showing signs of wear or fatigue. Also, know the working limits of your gear. A stuck car will have considerably more resistance than a free one, especially if you’re pulling upwards, as from a ditch. Secure your equipment well and double check before pulling. In the process of pulling, always be smooth, avoiding jerking or running starts that can temporarily overload the recovery gear.
Scenario 3: In the course of extracting the other vehicle, it is damaged by rocks, trees or other snow-covered debris in the ditch. Are you liable for the damage done to the car?
Answer: No, any damage incurred will be considered part of the original accident.
Advice: To cover yourself, you may want to take cell-phone pictures or video before starting to remove the vehicle, noting the conditions and any prior damage. While you’re at it, you may want to go ahead and get a video authorization from the owner to recover the car, with their acknowledgement that further damage may occur.
Scenario 5: After pulling the other car free, the other driver runs into your truck, unable to stop. Is the other driver liable for damages, or could you be considered liable if it’s determined you pulled too fast or hard?
Answer: Yes, the other vehicle’s owner would be liable for the damage, but depending on the amount and type of damage, it’s possible that the accident may be further investigated and both parties assigned partial responsibility.
Advice: First, give yourself enough distance with appropriate-length recovery straps. At least a car-length should separate the two vehicles for minor recoveries; two car-lengths or more should be considered for situations where momentum may be a factor.
Also, plan your recovery for conditions and possible reactions. You wouldn’t want to pull a vehicle onto an icy downhill surface, for instance. If the driver of the other vehicle is to remain in his car for control purposes, make sure you are able to clearly communicate to him and that he clearly understands any instructions you give him. Worst case, have another person record the recovery on your phone.
Scenario 6: Despite your efforts during the course of recovery, the other vehicle becomes even more entrenched than when you started. Can the other driver demand you pay for professional recovery, either in part or in full?
Answer: No. They got themselves stuck in the first place, and you attempted to help them (presumably) for no charge. You made no guarantee of recovery, and if you fail, they are still in exactly the same situation they were when you arrived.
Advice: Make it clear from the beginning that you will try your best to help them, but if you are unsuccessful they will have to call a professional.
The takeaway in each of these situations is that you and the other parties involved should understand that you are not a professional, just a fellow motorist offering a helping hand. Things may go wrong. In this modern technological age we live in, your best defense in any of these situations may be to document the recovery from start to finish with your cell phone camera, and obtain a video authorization from the other party before agreeing to help.
We would like to thank Dave Miller, a State Farm Insurance agent who operate in the Chicago Suburbs, for assisting us with these questions. Dave is also an avid exotic car enthusiast who runs his own website drivewithdave.com.