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Fairbanks, Alaska

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Ward Merdes
Ward Merdes
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Alaskan Snowmachiners Must Follow The Law

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A number of folks have asked me lately what "legal rules apply to snowmobile drivers?" Undoubtedly, the question arises because Alaska has suffered through more than its share of snowmobile accidents this winter. A doctor was killed while dog sledding. A Big Lake man died when he ran into a power pole. Recently, a Deering man stole a sled and actually drove it through an ATCO unit, killing an occupant and badly hurting his female passenger. Alcohol and/or drugs were likely in play in these instances.

You too might be wondering what laws apply to snowmobile wrecks. The answer is "The same as with cars." Alaska enjoys a "negligence" standard for all activities … including driving cars, walking down the street, and operating snowmobiles. The key inquiry is whether the at-fault party acted "reasonably under the circumstances." In other words, did the guy/gal who caused the problem act normally, or did he/she act like an idiot? Though less-than-legal sounding (my tort professor would wince if he knew I wrote this), the standard for "negligence" really is that simple: Who was acting like an idiot when the accident occurred?

I respectfully submit that drinking and driving a snowmobile makes the driver an idiot. As a matter of law, it makes him negligent. If he hurts somebody while he’s drinking/driving a snowmobile, just as with a car, he will be held accountable for all the damages he causes. If he kills somebody while driving through an ATCO unit … Welcome him to the world of getting sued… for everything he owns.

You see, the law actually makes sense most of the time. I hope you agree that a drunken idiot who kills somebody should not only go to jail – but should also be sued until he/she bleeds.

Similarly, beware "news" items screaming about frivolous lawsuits. These “news” items normally include about half of the story. When you learn the whole story, most "news" items about frivolous lawsuits lose their luster. What appeared frivolous suddenly starts making sense. As Paul Harvey used to say "Stay tuned for the rest of the story." Therein lays the tension. Remember, "News" sells. For example, when is the last time you read about an airplane that took off, flew smoothly, and landed without incident? Never. That’s not news. That’s boring. But, if the same plane piles into the ground with bodies everywhere, that’s NEWS. This information bias leads folks to believe that airplane travel is dangerous. We all know it’s not. Quite the opposite.

This same bias results in folks thinking that all lawsuits are stupid, or that the civil justice system is "broken." Nothing could be further from the truth … about 99.9% of the time. Justice is had in the vast majority of situations. In that other .1%, aberration rules the day. Yet, you only read about the .1% … because it’s NEWS.

Pay attention to this information/news bias when you read about snowmobile accidents. Dig hard to get the whole story. Reserve judgment until you are sure you know what is "really going on." Make Paul Harvey proud. Avoid being a "sound bite" victim of news sources with an agenda.

And hey… slow down out there, will ya?