WATERVILLE — Ben Wheeler was traveling north in December on Interstate 95 when his car was hit with a rush of snow and ice dumped down on it from the Trafton Road overpass.

The snow — which came cascading down onto Wheeler’s Volvo as he approached the overpass — hit the windshield so hard it shattered the glass “like someone dropped a dead body on my car,” said Wheeler, 39.

Luckily, Wheeler was able to pull his car over to the side of the road and call 911. He suffered only minor injuries, but his car had to be towed because of the extensive damage.

He was in shock, but still not prepared for what came next.

Wheeler said he saw an orange city plow truck crossing the overpass just before the avalanche of snow hit him, and the plow was to blame for the accident. But after raising the issue with the city, he received a letter from its insurance agent, denying any liability.

“They basically stated in their denial letter that what happened is just a byproduct of living in Maine in the winter,” Wheeler said. “I was flabbergasted, to be honest.”

DENIAL OF CLAIM

This photo shows damage to the windshield of Ben Wheeler’s car. Wheeler said a Waterville plow truck pushed an avalanche of snow and ice onto it Dec. 17 from the Trafton Road overpass on Interstate 95 in Waterville.

In the letter dated Dec. 21, four days after the accident, a claims representative for the city’s insurance agency, Maine Municipal Association Risk Management Services, cited protection under the Maine Tort Claims Act, which largely grants the government immunity from claims seeking to recover damages, and is a section of state law that says the state or towns are not liable for accidents when roads are covered with snow or ice.

It also stated the city’s plow truck and equipment were in proper working order and the driver was properly operating the vehicle and its equipment.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Maine State Police investigators determined a Waterville plow truck was responsible for the icy deluge, but charges are not anticipated because the driver was not aware he had damaged a vehicle on the interstate.

But Public Works Director Mark Turner said there is no way of knowing whether a city plow truck was in fact to blame, or whether the ice and snow could have flown off another vehicle or been a result of buildup that just fell off the overpass.

He said police may have assumed a Waterville plow driver was to blame after calling public works to find out that the city is responsible for plowing that area.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that occurred perhaps because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Turner said. “Unfortunately the vehicle was hit with falling ice or snow, but we’re not certain if that was due to us going across the bridge or from some other cause.”

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the MMA, said he could not discuss the details of an investigation done by the insurance company.

“We did investigate,” he said. “We looked into it, and in our opinion there was no negligence on the city’s part.”

NO LIABILITY IN ICE OR SNOW

Under current state statutes, it’s likely the insurance company is correct in its reasoning for denying the claim, said Don Zillman, Godfrey professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law.

However, he said that doesn’t mean the law couldn’t be written better or an exception should not be made for a rare case such as Wheeler’s if in fact the plow truck was to blame.

“It can’t be often that this occurs, where a plow truck pushes curious stuff off a bridge and hits a car going under,” Zillman said. “Maybe (the city) would say, ‘Let’s reach a settlement with the person.’ It’s not a gigantic amount of money, and just in good faith seems like a good thing to do.”

In general, Maine courts have not been lenient in granting exceptions to the statute exempting governments from liability when roads are covered in snow or ice, Zillman said.

“It would be impossible for the Legislature to try and take on everything where someone is saying, ‘The road conditions were bad and that’s why I had an accident,'” he said. “That’s why they’ve said, ‘We are not going to do those.'”

Ben Wheeler said a Waterville plow truck pushed snow off the Trafton Road overpass onto his car last month as he was driving north on Interstate 95. Wheeler spent $3,000 out of his own pocket on repairs to his Volvo, which sustained an estimated $7,000 worth of damage that the city’s insurance company denied.

HOW PLOWING WORKS

The weather Dec. 17, the date of the incident, resulted in about 4 inches of wet snow, according to Turner, who said the weather is tracked in the department’s storm log.

The city is responsible for plowing Trafton Road and the overpass above I-95 but does not keep records of time periods when snow removal vehicles are in certain locations.

“It sounds like it must have been a freak thing,” City Manager Mike Roy said. “I don’t think it resulted because of us doing things any differently than what we normally do.”

The protocol for plow trucks crossing bridges and overpasses is to travel at a slow rate of speed, and Turner said drivers are trained to use the utmost caution in plowing those areas, which are often narrow and have oncoming traffic.

The snow is pushed off the bridge or overpass to land, and bridges and overpasses are also plowed more frequently to prevent buildup, icy conditions and spillover.

Turner said he was not aware of any snow fencing on bridges or overpasses in the city, which is commonly used by the Maine Department of Transportation.

The fencing is a tight mesh used to prevent spillover during plowing, DOT Spokesman Ted Talbot said, and is generally installed in high-traffic areas.

LOOKING FOR DAMAGES

After the snow fell onto his car in Waterville, Wheeler said he pulled over right away and called 911.

The cost to repair his car ranged from around $3,000 to $6,800. He said he opted to make the minimal amount of repairs because he didn’t have the money to pay for more and the damages were not covered by his own insurance.

“The claim (to the MMA) was denied just a few days before Christmas,” said Wheeler, a photographer who works mostly in the summer shooting weddings. “I don’t have a lot of money coming in right now. It was just a really (bad) situation where, in my mind, there was no question of whether this guy was being negligent. You can’t just throw snow over like that onto cars.”

Zillman said the case could be looked at by Maine lawmakers as grounds for possibly allowing more exceptions to government immunity and that drivers also should take note of the strict rules about liability in bad weather.

“My guess is the average person, if they’re buying into the injured party’s claim, would say, ‘This doesn’t sound right,'” Zillman said. “This is rare — an ice chunk coming over the highway where you assume people are going at least 45 miles an hour — and it could have been so much worse, resulting in severe injury or death. It makes you think, maybe the city should pay this one off. Then we can go to the Legislature and change the rules of the game if there are cases like that.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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