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Q&A: William Haggard on weather and the law

24 October 2017

The meteorologist and expert witness in more than 200 legal cases explains how meteorological details have proved pivotal in the courtroom.

William Haggard

William Haggard had been the director of the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) for a decade when he stepped into a new role, that of a certified consulting meteorologist and expert witness, in 1976. For the next 30 years, Haggard analyzed weather events for lawyers and juries.

In his new book, Weather in the Courtroom, Haggard revisits 14 of his most interesting and memorable cases, discussing both the relevant weather phenomena and the intricate legal questions involved. In the October issue of Physics Today, reviewer Gabriel Henderson says the book “gives us valuable insight into forensic meteorology in the courtroom—both how it operates in practice and the legal issues it confronts.”

Physics Today caught up with Haggard to learn what it takes to be an expert meteorological witness.

PT: Tell us a bit about your early career. How did you become interested in forensic meteorology?

HAGGARD: Growing up on a farm in Connecticut, I was fascinated by the weather. I knew by an early age that I wanted to be a weatherman. I studied physics at Yale as a prerequisite to meteorology. Then I applied to MIT, but with the outbreak of World War II they only accepted military candidates, so I joined the Navy. After a year of classwork at MIT, I spent two years on an escort carrier as a forecaster. After the war I obtained a master’s degree in meteorology from the University of Chicago. Later I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, to join NCDC.

The center archives climatological data from all over the world and makes it available to the public. I became aware that many attorneys were requesting these weather data for their litigation—they needed to know what the weather had been to reconstruct its role in their case. Government meteorologists could not be released from their full-time duties to interpret this data in the courtroom; this function was performed by consulting meteorologists. As a member of the local American Meteorological Society chapter, I had met some of them and thought their work was fascinating. I became the 150th certified consulting meteorologist after passing the AMS’s challenging test. I retired from federal service and formed Climatological Consulting Corporation in 1976 to offer my services to attorneys as an expert witness in forensic meteorology.

PT: What kinds of cases require an expert meteorological witness?

HAGGARD: My cases included slips and falls on icy sidewalks, highway accidents, aviation crashes and turbulence injuries, containers falling overboard from a ship, roof collapses due to heavy snow, et cetera. In most of them, weather was a critical factor in the event, but human error played a significant role.

There were a few more unusual cases. The White Mountain Apache tribe in Arizona filed suit against the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, seeking $1.25 billion in compensation for alleged long-term and continuing mismanagement of the tribe’s water, rangeland, and timber resources. I was engaged by the Department of Justice to research and testify about the weather and climate conditions throughout the history of the reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs won the case.

PT: Were the cases always in civil court, or did you testify in criminal trials as well?

HAGGARD: Most of my cases were in civil court, but the last case in my book is a criminal trial. The suspect claimed to be sitting by the pool for hours on a December evening, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, while his wife supposedly fell down the stairs. My task was to assist the court in determining the outdoor temperature by the pool and to define the human comfort zone, the temperatures in which a person can be comfortable during an extended time period. The district attorney was attempting to show the jury that the suspect’s alibi was unlikely and that he was really inside the house murdering his wife. My research showed that it was cool by the pool. Though this was only part of the evidence, he was found guilty.

PT: Is there a case that stands out as particularly interesting or unusual?

HAGGARD: In August 1985, Delta 191, a Lockheed 1011 Tristar aircraft bound from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Los Angeles, was scheduled to stop at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. In the final stages of its approach to the runway, the aircraft encountered a microburst beneath a rapidly developing thunderstorm and crashed, killing 135 people.

The most unfortunate element of this case was that human errors were responsible for such a great part of this tragedy. The pilot saw lightning in the cloud ahead of him and failed to divert, and three air traffic controllers failed to warn anyone of the intensifying storm to prevent the crash.

In reconstructing the rapid development of this storm, I was very fortunate to work with Tetsuya Fujita, who had done intense research on microbursts. His knowledge and insight were invaluable to this case. Fujita published a book called The DFW Microburst that explained in detail the weather encountered by the aircraft; the book was used by both sides in the litigation.

I had been hired by Delta’s insurance attorneys and testified about the weather in two separate federal court trials. Delta joined the pilots’ widows in a suit against the government, alleging that the Federal Aviation Administration could have prevented the crash. The case was tried in Fort Worth and lasted 14 months, and the federal judge ultimately found Delta, not the FAA, liable in the crash. In Fort Lauderdale, the family of Sidney Bernstein, one of the victims of the crash, brought suit against Delta and its insurance company in a separate trial. The federal jury of six found Delta not liable.

The complexity of the weather, the human error factor, and the opposite verdicts made these cases very unusual.

PT: What do you think might surprise readers about your courtroom experiences?

HAGGARD: It is always surprising that two expert witnesses working on opposite sides can use the same weather data and arrive at very different conclusions. This happened quite often.

I was occasionally badgered by the opposing attorney during my testimony. One attorney got permission to approach me in the witness stand to identify the contents of a document; he stood close beside my right shoulder and turned pages, asking “and what does that page say” as he butted my right shoulder with a huge belt buckle. When I queried my attorneys later as to why they didn’t intervene, they said, “Every belly butt was a brownie point for us.”

Sometimes I was hired by an attorney only to prevent me from working for the other side, though they had no intention of asking me to do any work for them.

PT: What are you currently reading?

HAGGARD: I enjoy listening to nonfiction history audio books. I am currently listening to Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling. Next on my list is Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

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