In March 2017, a traffic accident claimed the lives of three storm chasers on a road in west Texas. Last week, a $125 million wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the Weather Channel (TWC) and several related parties.
TWC employed Kelley Williamson and Randall Yarnall, the passenger and driver of the vehicle faulted in the accident. On a storm chase, their truck blasted through a stop sign at 70 mph, colliding with fellow storm chaser Corbin Jaeger. All involved were killed.
In the lawsuit, filed last week in Lubbock, Tex., Jaeger’s mother accuses TWC of ignoring warnings from others about the chasers’ reckless driving habits, which she says ultimately resulted in her son’s death.
The case is a first of its kind, and the outcome may lead to a rethinking of the relationship between storm chasers and media organizations. Storm chasers are known for their competitive nature, but they also tend to police themselves and take pride in safety habits and helping others.
Before the horrific events of May 31, 2013, when the huge El Reno tornado took the lives of scientist Tim Samaras and his crew, a twister had never killed any chasers although several had died in vehicle accidents. Chasers generally kept a safe distance from storms or had planned escape routes.
Compared with many other outdoor pursuits, even popular ones such as surfing or hiking, the endeavor had not proved as risky as it might seem.
“Dangerously reckless chasers are rare, in my experience,” Amos Magliocco, a veteran chaser, told The Washington Post. “[T]he behavior this lawsuit describes is like nothing I’ve seen or heard about from anybody, even the chasers commonly accused of irresponsibility.”
This seems to be a common sentiment among others who have been chasing storms long enough to know.
“The vast majority of storm chasers are safe, law-abiding citizens, striving to help out in the severe weather warning process, and are instrumental in educating emergency officials on the location and severity of storms, and the science behind that,” Reed Timmer, one of the world’s best-known tornado chasers, told AccuWeather.
Jeff Frame, a University of Illinois professor who leads and participates in tornado field studies, concurred. “Most storm chasers are safe,” Frame told the BBC.
But the clicks and the fame garnered by capturing viral tornado footage on social media may be provoking and rewarding risky behavior. “[S]ocial media can be incredibly empowering but also incredibly destructive,” said Raychel Sanner, one of the founders of the chase group Tornado Titans.
The stakes are higher when chasers partner with major news organizations seeking the most dramatic content. A significant portion of this lawsuit focuses on claims that TWC pushed chasers to their limits and overlooked bad behavior.
“It’s my opinion that the Weather Channel has a very long history of promoting and executing dangerous behavior,” photojournalist and storm chaser Warren Faidley wrote at Stormtrack.org, a forum for chasers. He pointed to past situations when chasers at the Weather Channel took ill-advised risks, including an on-camera meteorologist and crew getting hit by the El Reno tornado in 2013.
“Given TWC’s past history, it may not be hard to establish a pattern of ignoring such behavior,” Faidley said.
In the same forum thread, storm chaser Jesse Risley noted that “some of this behavior is a manifestation of a certain facet of the hobby becoming financially competitive in order to get the best live stream shot or get the best breaking video sale before the competition does.” Risley continued, “[W]hen people are financially driven in this manner, it tends to exacerbate poor behavior such as flagrant traffic violations to get in position and get ‘the shot.’ ”
Specifics aside, it has always been a truism that for most chasers the most dangerous part of chasing is the driving, rather than the tornadoes themselves. Many chasers drive thousands of miles a week when chasing.
In 2017 — the most recent year with a full accounting — more than 37,000 people died in traffic accidents. Texas was the leader in fatalities, with nearly 10 percent of that total. Crashes involving a stop-sign violation make up a majority of accidents. Further, the insurance world expects the average driver to get into one accident about every two decades. In any five-year stretch, a driver has a 25-percent chance of getting into an accident.
While a majority of traffic accidents are not fatal, they are very much a part of driving. It’s certainly possible that chasers are at greater risk simply because of the sheer number of miles they drive.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told USA Today last year that law enforcement has seen significant increases in distracted driving in recent years. This may be an area where chasers can work to reduce risk.
“Chasers are the original distracted drivers,” Magliocco said. Even the lowest-key folks will usually have a setup that allows them to look at a display of data from their seats when stopped. Mostly when stopped.
Magliocco went on to say he uses less gear than in the past. “Cameras, live streams, weather apps, other drivers, wet roads and a giant thunderstorm are all things that should not compete for our attention at 70 mph,” he said.
On this point, Sanner agreed. “Practically speaking, we should be doing everything we can from a safety standpoint of keeping the front of chase vehicles distraction-free and clear of clutter as a top safety priority,” she said.