According to news reports, a burn pile of smoldering mulch Thursday morning in Western Wake County reduced visibility on a nearby highway, resulting in several car wrecks. Apparently, a construction company was burning "slash" material from clearing property for development, after the company couldn't find anyone to take it away on short notice. The company must be relieved that there were no initial reports of injuries, because it seems there is a very real possibility that they would be liable for those injuries- they probably could still be liable for property damage that resulted from the smoke if they are found to have been negligent in the manner they conducted the burn.
Under North Carolina law, a negligent party is culpable for injuries that result from their negligence. To establish negligence, an injured party must show that the defendant:
1. Had a duty to the injured party;
2. Breached that duty;
3. That the breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of plaintiff's injury;
4. The plaintiff suffered damages as a consequence of the breach.
In 2005, the North Carolina Supreme Court reviewed a ruling regarding a very similar issue except the allegation was against the state for a forest ranger's alleged negligence in failing to put out a naturally occurring forest fire, and leaving a smoldering fire burning- the smoke similarly reduced visibility on nearby I-95, causing a fatal accident. Although the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court determination that the state could be liable (based on sovereign immunity grounds and the State Tort Claims Act), the legal dispute was not about whether there was negligence, but rather whether the state could be held liable for the negligence.
With respect to yesterday's car wrecks, there is a strong argument that a property owner or contractor burning slash would have a duty to ensure that their fire does not create visibility problems on nearby roadways. Of course, there is always the possibility of contributory negligence (such as failure to reduce speed due to visibility conditions) absolving any liability, but as a pure question of negligence it seems that burnpiles creating hazardous visibility-impairing smoke on a nearby highway would fit the bill.