Weather forensics creating stormy days for swindlers

By Howard Altschule
January 6, 2014

Doppler radar’s precision exposes hail, rain, and slip-and-fall cons as all wet

Abstract: Forensic meteorology is a small but rapidly growing field. Doppler radar, especially, is having a big impact on weather-related cases. Doppler’s ability to precisely map weather conditions at times and locations when expensive claims are made has two important benefits: expose fraudulent claims and validate honest ones. The few hundred dollars that a detailed weather report can cost could save insurers tens of thousands of dollars in claims. Doppler is especially useful for analyzing lightning and hail claims, slip-and-falls and storm activity involving damaged homes. Insurers requesting reports by weather experts will know early on whether to pay a claim or defend it before spending lots of money. The use of forensic meteorologists by insurance companies, defense attorneys and plaintiff attorneys will continue to increase as the detail and accuracy of weather reports becomes better known by fraud investigators.

imageForensic meteorology is a relatively small but rapidly growing field. It is being embraced by more and more insurance companies, plaintiff and defense law firms, and engineers and homeowners.

From determining if ice was pre-existing or just beginning to form in a slip-and-fall case to investigating if hail fell at a claimant’s home on a specific date, forensic meteorologists work on a wide range of fraud cases involving any imaginable weather condition.

Forensic meteorology isn’t a new profession. But the precision and accuracy of forensic weather reports are gaining acceptance among a small but increasing number of insurers.

This is especially true of Doppler radar, which is arguably the most significant meteorology tool now available for many different investigations, and especially involving fraud.

Several reasons explain the phenomenon:

  • Severe weather outbreaks, blizzards and ice storms have increased over the past 10 years, possibly linked to global climate change. More extreme weather is possible in the years ahead.1

  • The economy remains unsteady, thus raising concerns over possible increases in false and fraudulent claims.

  • Sophisticated forensic weather tools and finely honed data can pinpoint the weather conditions in the vicinity of an incident location at a specific time and date.

    Despite the steady growth in forensic weather usage, my observation is that many and probably most insurers don’t use these valuable tools. Nor do most insurers understand how precisely these weather reports can hone in with the newest technology. Such detailed findings can play pivotal roles in solving fraud cases, avoiding large injury claim payouts to swindlers, and compelling quick plea bargains involving obvious fraudulent claims.

    Equally important, forensic weather consultants also can validate honest claims so the claimant receives fair payouts they legally deserve.

    From a business standpoint, use of forensic weather consultants in most weather-related claims can return a healthy ROI. Insurers may spend a mere several hundred dollars for sophisticated weather data and technology, an in-depth and site-specific meteorological analysis and detailed written report on the findings. But this information can help save tens or hundreds of thousand dollars on a serious injury or damage claim.

    Forensic meteorologists most often work on fraud cases involving:

  • Slip and falls on snow and/or ice.

  • Vehicle accidents involving low visibility, heavy rain, fog or sun glare.

  • Hail or wind damage.

  • Flood or hurricane/super-storm damage cases.

    Some insurance companies that are wise to the benefits of forensic weather reports request them at the outset of nearly all slip-and-fall fraud cases involving snow and/or ice. The precise weather results can quickly help insurers determine if the claim is valid.

    Forensic meteorologists also are honest brokers. They carefully report the facts. They do not rule whether fraud was committed or if a claim is valid. Rather, their job is to provide accurate, fact-based opinions using sound scientific principles supported by reliable weather records.

    Forensic weather consultants also provide live expert testimony at trials. Importantly, meteorologists must use data that is certifiable or reliable and admissible as evidence. Some television meteorologists moonlight in forensics. But many are unaware of the rules of evidence or exactly how many different types of data and products really are available. Thus, it is important to choose an expert with a credible track record and wide knowledge of the full range of forensics tools available for investigations.

    Because of the weather expert’s important but narrowly circumscribed role, the cases described in this article are not necessarily all fraud-related. Weather experts often are privy only to narrow case details related to their testimony. But the following cases do aptly show how forensic meteorology can help solve often-complex cases.

    Doppler’s precise measures

    “Doppler radar images were zoomed into the address of the home, and a search of lighting-strike data confirmed that no cloud-to-ground lighting strikes occured in the area.”Doppler radar, or NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar), is perhaps the most technical and sophisticated tool in the forensic weather profession.

    Doppler radar facilities on the ground obtain weather information (precipitation and wind) based upon returned energy. The radar emits a burst of energy into the atmosphere. If the energy strikes an object (rain drop, bug, bird, etc.), the energy is scattered in all directions. A small fraction of that scattered energy is directed back toward the radar.

    This reflected signal is then received by the radar during its listening period. Computers analyze the strength of the returned pulse, the time it took to travel to the object and back, and phase shift of the pulse.

    Using this information, weather experts can identify precipitation and various types of severe weather.

    Doppler radar imagery has had a large impact on fraud cases. Images are usually updated about every six minutes and can be zoomed in over an incident location to show what occurred in highly magnified detail.

    The Doppler records can be overlaid on top of a Google Earth map. This allows investigators to see the weather conditions at locations as specific as neighborhood and street level. This helps identify the weather conditions at a certain alleged loss location. The images are also archived for easy retrieval and use in forensic cases. Surprisingly, some popular forensic meteorology firms don’t use Doppler radar in their analyses. They are missing out on a lot:

    Doppler has a wide variety of archived products. Reflectivity images can show when snow or rain began, how heavy it was, where it fell and where it did not. Some newer products can even show whether rain, snow or sleet fell at an incident location.

    Doppler radar velocity products also can show wind speeds above an incident location during a thunderstorm, and if tornadoes or microburst signatures were present.

    Hail algorithm products can help show what the maximum estimated hail sizes were and the probability of severe hail (stones of 0.75 to 1.00 inch) over an incident location.

    One-hour precipitation totals and storm total-precipitation images can help determine how much rain fell at a location during a specified time period.

    This provides useful evidence for claims involving roof leaks or floods after hurricanes and major storms. This is especially true for localized, isolated heavy thunderstorms.

    Forensic weather reports for use in automobile cases involving claimed hydroplaning, black ice on the road or other damage-causing conditions can also be determined using Doppler radar products.

    Weather experts regularly use many other types of weather tools and data to assist them in their analyses and determinations.

    National Weather Service information, U.S. Geological Survey gauge records, post-storm High Water Mark surveys and local storm reports, for a convincing case when determining the case outcomes.

    Exposing lightning claims

    Doppler radar data involving cloud-to-ground lightning strikes can assist with possible lightning strike claims. Radar imagery showing the presence of thunderstorms and actual surface observations also can help a weather investigation.

    An arson investigation team recently needed help to determine if a $1-million fire in a vacant home was caused by a cloud-to-ground lightning strike. Some neighbors assumed lightning had caused the fire because a “loud, bad storm” passed nearby and they heard a lot of thunder.

    The investigators were still at the fire scene, and a quick turnaround was needed to determine if the fire was caused by lightning. Doppler radar images were zoomed into the address of the home, and a search of lightning-strike data confirmed that no cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occurred in that general area.

    The closest cloud-to-ground strike was nine miles away, the forensics showed. Nor had lightning struck within six hours of the fire being reported. With a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, our weather expert opinion was that lightning did not cause the fire. The case awaits adjudication.

    Increasing in numbers, forensic weather experts are also being requested to assist insurers and attorneys with hail-damage claims.

    The need for accurate weather information is all the more important in light of recent statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

    Hailstorm damage claims increased 84 percent in 2012 from their 2010 level. Some 467,602 hail damage claims were filed in 2010. That number increased to 689,267 in 2011 and to 861,597 in 2012 — an overall increase of 84 percent.2

    Some clients are homeowners whose insurers denied their claims. Other times, the client is an insurer that found no recent hail damage or just normal “wear and tear” on a home falsely claimed as storm-damaged. One thing is for certain, anybody who only relies on printed hail reports is not getting the whole story. Because of the isolated nature of many severe thunderstorms, just because hail was not reported, that does not mean it didn’t occur. And vice versa. Just because lots of hail damage occurred in one county does not mean didn’t occur everywhere. Detailed analyses should be conducted for each questionable-loss location to determine if hail could have occurred. Many times the findings are surprising.

    The Doppler radar image in Exhibit 1 was taken on April 3, 2012 in Texas. The homeowner made a hail claim with his insurance carrier. A large hailstorm damaged the roof and siding on his house on this date, he said. Hailstorms and tornadoes affected the entire area that day, he claimed. The homeowner submitted newspaper articles and hail reports to support his claim.

    The insurer’s adjuster found what merely appeared to be normal “wear and tear” on the roof, but no hail damage. The claim was denied. The homeowner threatened to sue. He was adamant about getting a new roof by exploiting the hailstorm across the region. The insurer sought more-precise proof of his claim. In comes the forensic

    First step, plot the incident location on the radar image itself denoted by a red pushpin. A close review of the various images made it obvious that a supercell thunderstorm with a strong tornado vortex signature and hook echo passed relatively far away. In other words, hailstones the size of baseballs passed about 4-7 miles north of the loss location— but not over the home.

    This can be seen on the top left panel of Exhibit 1. The top right image shows a possible tornado in the storm-relative-velocity panel, but this also is far from the home.

    The panel on the lower left shows the Doppler radar Maximum Estimated Hail Size (MEHS). It is significant that the MEHS over the loss location was a hail size of 0.00 inches — in other words, no hail at his home. Other images processed every 6 minutes supported the same rationale. Hail from the thunderstorms passed well north of the dwelling and the storms south weakened.

    The panel on the bottom right also indicates that the probability of severe hail was zero percent at his home. Corroborating the findings were hail reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which confirmed that no hail fell in the immediate area.

    The homeowner finally admitted he had heard there were many hail damage reports in his county. He wanted to steal a new roof and siding with a false hail claim, courtesy of his insurer. This case awaits adjudication.

    Driven to deceive

    It is surprising that many more insurers don’t order forensic weather reports for every motor-vehicle claim involving serious injury or death where the weather, visibility or sun conditions may have been a factor.

    Doppler can quickly help confirm if an accident was caused by factors such as low visibility, heavy precipitation, hydroplaning, human error or fraud.

    Consider a tragic crash that happened on I-80 in New Jersey during a heavy thunderstorm. One motorist died. The plaintiff whose car was hit insisted rain was not falling and that the defendant insured drove recklessly.

    The insured defendant claimed that heavy rain fell, he was driving below the speed limit, and hydroplaned when hitting a patch of standing water. The police accident report said it was raining when the officer arrived at the scene. I plotted the accident location on this Doppler radar image in Exhibit 2 and overlaid the radar images before, during and after the crash. My review confirmed that heavy, torrential downpours fell when the vehicles crashed, and for about 10 minutes beforehand.

    The Doppler image in Exhibit 2 came one minute after the accident. The left panel shows red-shades echoes, which indicated heavy rain and torrential downpours. A Storm Total Precipitation image on the right side showed that about .84 inches of rain fell at the accident site when the crash occurred. Thus, it became evident that low visibility (possibly less than ••• mile), heavy rain and torrential downpours occurred when vehicles crashed. The .84 inches of rain that fell in the 10 minutes before the accident were more than enough to cause water buildup, ponding of water on the road, and hydroplaning in some areas. The findings supported the defendant’s story and the police officer’s report. The claim that it was not raining during the crash was not supported by the weather data.

    In another case, a police officer noted that it was raining when he arrived on an accident scene, but Doppler radar analysis revealed no rain fell 7-10 minutes earlier, when the accident occurred. The implications of such small differences can have significant effects on expensive false claims.

    Slipping up slip & falls

    Purported slip and falls on snow or ice are some of the most frequent forensic weather cases that experts work on. In the big cities of the northeast where these claims frequently occur, they can involve legitimate injuries and sometimes, insurance shakedowns. Weather analyses, the use of surface observations, snowfall reports and Doppler radar imagery can help determine which claims are legitimate.

    Most attorneys and insurance professionals simply look at a publication called Local Climatological Data from the nearest airport to determine if snow or freezing rain fell on the date of loss. While this weather record is useful if the person supposedly was injured at the airport, it can be misleading if the claimant was purportedly injured elsewhere. Much more detailed information is available to help uncover the facts.

    Recently, a claims adjuster involved in a slip and fall involving snow and ice retrieved the Local Climatological Data (LCD) record from LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y.

    The goal was to determine if a storm happened at a Bronx business. The claimant insisted there was no snow, the injury area was dangerously icy, and that the property owner should’ve cleared up the ice.

    The LCD showed that 4 inches of snow fell at the airport on the injury date. Relying fully on this record, the adjuster refused to settle the case inexpensively and early on because the weather report showed a snowstorm in progress. She assumed that meant the storm also was happening at the business site.

    Snowfall there could have triggered a “storm in progress” argument. Many courts state that business owners cannot reasonably be expected to go outside in the middle of a storm to clear sidewalks, door stoops or parking lots as snow or ice is still falling. They allow for a certain period of time after the storm ended to do so. One possible caveat is if snow or ice existed before this storm began.

    After many months of legal filings, depositions and very expensive legal bills, the claimant remained adamant that snow did not fall on the day he fell. Thus, the ice was pre-existing and the owner should have cleared the sidewalks, the claimant contended.

    Doppler radar super-resolution reflectivity images were obtained every 6 minutes and the injury location was overlaid (see Exhibit 3). The radar images indicated that the coastal storm that was out over the Atlantic halted its westward progress, and the snow never reached the injury site. So while 4 inches fell at LaGuardia, not one snow flake fell at the incident location that day.

    The Doppler radar image in Exhibit 3 shows snow falling at LaGuardia but not at the Bronx injury location. Records from a Bronx weather station confirmed no snowfall on the loss date.

    Had the adjuster hired a seasoned forensic meteorologist early on, she would have realized the winter storm never reached the injury location. With this proof, she could’ve settled the claim faster and saved her insurer considerable time and money involved with battling a valid claim.

    Here is another interesting point that can arise in slip-and-fall cases: The concept of melt/refreeze ice. Melting still can occur even though the low temperature on the LCD was below freezing. A small amount of direct sunshine can melt ice in low temperatures. Thus, counter-intuitively, the watery surface isn’t necessarily slippery despite freezing
    weather at the time.

    Accurate weather analyses thus can prove that even seemingly airtight claims involve fraud or bad faith by showing that sidewalks, steps or parking lots weren’t slippery despite chilly temperatures.

    Icing the claim

    Another quite memorable slip-and-fall case involved a woman who claimed she fell on ice while walking into an office building.

    She said she had to walk on the grass because the sidewalk was too slippery due to “ice everywhere.” She also said her windshield wipers wouldn’t work on the way to her appointment because they were iced over.

    In her accident report, she told emergency medical personnel that it was raining, and thus the ice must have been pre-existing. She thought the owner was liable for not clearing the area.

    The claimant was adamant that it was only raining. Meanwhile, Doppler radar showed that a big ice storm indeed was occurring. An ice-storm warning was in effect and freezing rain had fallen for about 8 hours before the accident. Light to moderate freezing rain was reported at several surface observation stations. In addition, a public-information statement from a nearby spotter indicated new glaze/ice that was 0.7 inches thick.

    Using the scientific definition of “freezing rain,” I explained what freezing rain was, how it turns to ice/glaze under certain conditions, and how it is often confused with sleet (ice pellets). While the claimant felt liquid rain falling on her arm and face (since her body temperature was presumably near 98.6 degrees), the outside temperature was 19 degrees and the falling rain immediately turned to ice when it landed on below freezing surfaces. This demonstrated that new ice/glaze was actively forming and accumulating.

    Critically, weather records also revealed that this was the first winter storm of the season. So the ice could not have been preexisting. In this instance, the argument that this was a “storm in progress” seems validated. How could the owner be expected to clear the area of ice while a storm was raging?

    Her description of “ice everywhere” was consistent with ice that forms immediately by freezing rain.

    A forensic meteorologist’s affidavit was prepared for the insured demonstrating that all of the ice that was present resulted from the ongoing storm. The judge granted a motion for summary judgement dismissing the case.

    The insurer defended the claim using a potent combination of certified weather records, Doppler radar images, a qualified expert witness giving opinions about the weather conditions, and testimony by the plaintiff herself. The judge had a legitimate basis for denying the claim.

    Doppler checks windy claims

    The use of forensic meteorologists with hurricane claims became more visible and recognized after Hurricane Katrina. The complex debate over whether wind or floodwaters caused home damage woke up some insurers to the need for more-precise tools to confront false claims and good-faith differences with homeowners.

    In fact, some insurers did use satellite imagery and other tools to determine if flood surges or wind and rain had even reached some claimants’ locales. The analyses uncovered false claims.

    Following Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, a weather station along the New Jersey Shore said wind fell just below hurricane strength near the heavily damaged beach communities of Monmouth and Ocean counties.

    Communications with other professionals revealed that this weather unit was just replaced before the storm and that the anemometer calculation setting was incorrect. Upon correcting this and applying the correct setting provided by the manufacturer, the wind speed was actually recorded at 91 mph versus the low 70s. Of course, a 91-mph wind can cause much more damage. This accurate new information can have enormous implications on the outcomes of scores of pending Sandy claims.

    But many meteorologists who do not have experience in this specific area likely don’t even know these observations exist because they rarely use such detailed forensic evidence. Thus, their expert opinions could have been quite inaccurate. This basic mistake could have affected hundreds or even thousands of claims. Many engineers and other professionals who are not meteorologists often interpret the weather themselves. They also do not know about this error and base their findings on the old information.

    Courts are now questioning whether non-meteorologists should be giving opinions about the weather conditions because it is beyond their expertise. And unless the incident happened where the observation was taken, the weather conditions could have differed. The ultimate decision could put an entire case in jeopardy. Thus, forensic meteorologists are being hired more often to assess the weather in many more complex cases and their reports are being given to other experts to use in their determinations. This ensures that there won’t be any surprises if and when the case goes to trial.

    In closing, recent enhancements in weather technology give insurers a plethora of tools to determine if a weather claim is valid.

    The days of solely relying on the LCD weather record from the nearest airport should be long gone. But, unfortunately many insurers still use them as the primary basis for settling claims and pursuing suspected bogus ones.

    Forensic weather investigations using certifiable records and new technology will continue to play a growing role in validating weather-related claims and identifying fraudulent ones.

    Insurers requesting reports by weather experts will know early on whether to pay a claim or defend it before spending lots of money. The use of forensic meteorologists by insurance companies, defense attorneys and plaintiff attorneys will continue to increase as the detail and accuracy of weather reports becomes better known by fraud investigators.

    About the author: Howard Altschule is a Forensic Meteorologist who has worked on over 2,000 cases nationwide. He is owner of Forensic Weather Consultants, LLC in Albany, N.Y.

    [1] Weather of Last Decade Part of Larger Pattern Linked to Global Warming, Science Daily, March 25, 2012.

    [2] NICB Reports Hail Damage Claims in the United States, news release, July 17, 2013.

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