Sunday, June 23, 2019

Criminal Liability For Failing to Take Proper Action During a Weather Threat?


The Critical Nature of Expert Weather Warnings 
For Event Organizers

Two items have come together during the last four days that I want to bring to the attention of our readers. We begin with a video taken Saturday evening at the Country Stampede, a 3-day outdoor concert and event held this year in Topeka, Kansas.
Video via Twitter and WIBW Radio's Shawn Wheat

People in attendance talked about the ineffective efforts of the organizers to alert attendees to the threat of lightning and get them to safety (their cars).

Since the video and comments were posted on Twitter, I have been trying to get the facts as to what occurred and, as I write this, I still do not have all of them. But, they aren't needed to make several important points about this type of event.
  • The National Weather Service does not explicitly forecast lightning. They do not have the second-by-second lightning data nor do they have the patented techniques we had (and, I'm sure, still have but I retired 15 months ago) at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. There are other commercial weather companies that forecast lightning but I do not know what they use, so I cannot comment on the quality of their efforts. 
  • The job of the National Weather Service is to provide storm warnings and forecasts to the public-at-large, not to tailor products for specific businesses (which is what these outdoor events are). And, while I do not do for-fee forecasting any more, I have deep experience in helping plan weather response and communications for emergency situations. [I am available for this type of assignment, if you are interested.] Here is one example of the type of knowledge required to create an effective warning system: if you provide a storm warning announcement but the band continues to play, you have provided a mixed message to your patrons. Few will evacuate at least until the storm is unmistakable to the eye, which by then, may be too late. 
  • At least three on Twitter (one shown below) commented that event organizers "shouldn't have to pay" for weather information. Why not? It is an essential cost of doing that type of business just like paying the bands, paying for security, renting the venue, et cetera.
For many decades, meteorologists and others who actively use weather information have relied on U.S. Supreme Court rulings, on three occasions, that meteorologists could not be held liable for weather forecasts because (paraphrasing) "everyone knows weather forecasting is an inexact science." However, as forecasting as gotten better and better, that legal protection may be eroding. 
Springfield News-Leader
The entire news story is here. Here are pertinent excerpts. 

Curtis P. Lanham, 36, of Galena, and Charles V. Baltzell, 76, of Kirbyville, were each indicted on more than a dozen felony charges.
A news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri says Lanham was the general manager of Ride the Ducks Branson, and Baltzell was the company's operations supervisor.
Baltzell, who was in charge of monitoring the weather, checked the radar that evening and told McKee and the duck boat’s road driver at 6:28 p.m. to start the tour with the water portion and then finish with the road portion since a storm was on its way, according to the indictment.
Four minutes later, the National Weather Service upgraded the severe thunderstorm watch to a warning, with language about 60 mph wind gusts. United States Coast Guard regulations state the duck boat vessels shouldn’t be operated in winds exceeding 35 mph.
The duck boat embarked on its scheduled tour, anyway, and went into Table Rock Lake. McKee allegedly told the passengers they would not need their life jackets.
As the severe weather was moving closer, Baltzell was allegedly performing his “close out duties” at Ride the Ducks Branson, related to sales and the cash drawer, and not closely monitoring the weather.
The weather conditions got progressively worse as the duck boat was out on the lake, but the indictment says the defendants failed to act properly.
In the three minutes before the duck boat sank at 7:09 p.m., the indictment says McKee said nothing to the passengers, despite the concerning weather conditions and the bilge alarm on the vessel going off twice.
I am not an attorney and I have no comments on the merits of this particular case. I also want to emphasize that the defendants should be considered innocent until proven guilty in court. That said, I can make some generalized comments:

First,
If the Duck Boat officials are convicted, it sets a precedent that if you are responsible for weather safety and something goes terribly wrong, you could be facing jail as well as severe financial loss. 

Incidents like the Kansas City Royals continuing play while lightning is directly above the stadium and thunder is roaring through the stands need to stop. Now! Umpires using apps (as in last week's example, below) doesn't cut it.
While I believe that, in general, criminal prosecution for mishandling weather is a (net) bad idea, it might motivate event organizers to get their acts together and hire commercial meteorologists who have experience and know what they are doing when there are large numbers of people to protect.

It hasn't been that many years since event organizers in Indianapolis (using smartphone apps according to reports) overruled their on-site meteorologist and continued the event. The fatal results are shown below. 

You wouldn't go to court without an attorney. You would not go to a tax audit without an accountant. It is irresponsible to conduct mass outdoor events without expert meteorological planning and guidance. 

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