In short, accident reconstruction is the scientific process of recreating the scene of an accident. Accident reconstruction is commonly used in personal injury cases, most often cases involving motor vehicle accidents, when determining who the negligent party was (i.e. the party who was at fault) is difficult or heavily contested. Negligence is a legal term that refers to the failure of an individual to exercise reasonable care that results in damages to another party.
The individuals that perform accident reconstructions are known as accident reconstructionists. Accident reconstructionists are expert witnesses that are hired to faithfully recreate the complete scene of the accident, including the circumstances that may have contributed to the accident, the mechanics involved, and all of the contributing factors.
As noted above, accident reconstruction is most commonly used in cases involving motor vehicle accidents. When recreating the scene of an accident, the accident reconstructionist will often utilize the following list of physical evidence to recreate the scene of the accident:
- Photographs that may have been taken at the scene;
- Videos, including officer’s body cam footage or nearby surveillance cameras, that may have captured at the scene of the accident;
- Audio that may have been captured from the emergency communications that occurred;
- Witness testimony, including testimony from all the parties involved, as well as any third party witnesses. Most often third party witnesses are deposed (i.e. interviewed about what they witnessed) shortly after the accident in question;
- Charts, tables, diagrams, and graphs that may have been prepared at the scene of the accident;
- Information pulled from the “black box” (a computer that stores crash data in a vehicle), if the accident involves motor vehicles;
- Police reports and other reports, such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) reports, that may have been generated at the scene of the accident; and
- The physical evidence that was the cause of the accident, such as faulty tires, safety equipment, etc.
It is important to note that accident reconstructionists are typically only utilized in personal injury lawsuits, where the injuries are severe, and determining who was at fault is difficult. This is in large part due to the costs involved with accident reconstruction. A typical accident reconstructionist will bill anywhere between $200 and $500 per hour for their time spent preparing their expert witness report and testifying in the case.
Common personal injury lawsuits where accident reconstructionists may be utilized include:
- Severe automobile accidents;
- Severe slip and fall, or other premises liability accidents; and/or
- Severe on the job injuries.
What Is Forensic Animation?
One item that is included in most, if not all, of an accident reconstructionist’s expert witness report is forensic animation. Forensic animation is a specific computer tool utilized by accident reconstructionists. Forensic animation is most commonly used in motor vehicle accident reconstruction. Forensic animation programs are able to accept multiple physics calculations, such as the speed of the car, the weather conditions, etc., to recreate an animated video of the incident.
Although forensic animations can almost accurately recreate the scene of an accident, their admission into court evidence is still often questioned and contested. Thus, getting forensic animations admitted into court evidence is often a tough matter, as many courts still question whether or not they are accurate enough to be used as evidence during a trial.
Once again, forensic animations will only be one part of an accident reconstructionists expert witness report. Often an accident reconstructionist’s expert witness report is over 100 pages long, and will include numerous calculations as to how the accident occurred, as well as charts, tables, diagrams, and graphs that recreate the mechanics of the accident. As you can imagine, the opposing party may also hire an accident reconstructionist to recreate the accident, if they do not agree with the results of the accident reconstruction of the other party.
What Are Some Important Considerations for Traffic Accident Reconstruction?
Once again, traffic accident reconstruction is the most common form of accident reconstruction. Traffic accident reconstruction typically occurs when there is a motor vehicle accident that resulted in severe injuries, and fault is undetermined or contested in the accident. For a proper accident reconstruction to occur, it is important for the accident reconstructionist to be able to physically inspect the vehicles involved in the collision. Often, vehicles that are involved in a motor collision may be destroyed or fully repaired shortly after an accident.
For this reason, it is important to quickly get a court order to preserve the physical evidence in the case to be used by the accident reconstructionist. Pieces of evidence that are often destroyed or deleted within a short period after the time of the accident include:
- Black Box or Event Data Recorders (“EDRs”): Since 2004, most if not all of U.S. vehicles have an event data recorder that records information related to a motor vehicle accident (speed of the vehicle, whether or not the seatbelt was engaged, steering adjustments, force of the impact, deployment of airbags, whether or not the brakes were applied, etc.). However, event data recorders may be overridden if the vehicle is driven after the incident, or may even be deleted or removed post accident;
- Surveillance or Other Video Evidence: There may be surveillance cameras in the surrounding area that may have captured the accident. There may also be dash cams, or videos taken at the scene of the accident that may be useful in proving fault in the accident. However, surveillance cameras often overwrite themselves after a 24 hour period, and videos may be deleted or overwritten. Thus, it is important to preserve videos quickly after an accident occurs; and
- Physical Evidence: As noted above, vehicles or parts may be completely repaired or destroyed after an accident. Thus, it is important to preserve all physical accident evidence such as the vehicle tires, the damage on the body of the vehicle, etc.
How Is Accident Reconstruction Evidence Analyzed?
As noted above, an expert witness report may not always be allowed to be used in court as evidence. It is important that the accident reconstruction report be a detailed and accurate representation of the accident. A party that opposes the expert witness report may attempt to disqualify the accident reconstructionist, or get the entire expert witness report thrown out.
The court will then review the accident reconstruction report, in order to determine both the accuracy of the report and the relevance of the report to the case at hand. If the evidence submitted to the court is inaccurate or not detailed, the court may not allow the evidence to be admitted and used for the case.
When analyzing accident reconstruction reports, including forensic animation, courts will typically look at the following:
- Relevance: If the evidence submitted to the court is not relevant to the personal injury claim at hand, the court may not allow the evidence to be admitted. For example, if the personal injury claim involves injuries resulting from an airbag, and the accident reconstruction does not include evidence regarding airbags, the opposing party may object to the relevance of the accident reconstruction. It is important to note that the evidence may still be admitted in order to help the court determine fault or calculate damages;
- Probative Value: If the evidence submitted to the court is probative (i.e. evidence that tends to prove or disprove the existence of other facts), the court may exclude the evidence, even if it is relevant. A court will exclude probative evidence if the evidence would unfairly prejudice a party, mislead the jury, or confuse the issues. For example, evidence of one party committing a crime prior to being involved in an accident, may or may not be admitted; and
- Accuracy: Often each party contesting fault will hire an accident reconstructionist. What this means is the court or jury will have to determine which report is a more fair and accurate representation of the accident. As noted above, this is why many forensic animations are not admissible.
As can be seen, accident reconstruction evidence will be thoroughly analyzed by the court before it will be admitted into the record and used in a court of law. Thus, it is important that the evidence submitted is detailed and accurate.
Should I Hire an Attorney for Assistance With Accident Reconstruction?
As can be seen, proving fault in an accident may sometimes be a difficult task. Thus, utilizing an accident reconstructionist is important in cases involving serious injuries, where fault cannot be easily determined. An experienced local car accident lawyer can help you determine whether hiring an accident reconstructionist is the correct decision given the facts of your case. An attorney can also help you quickly preserve any physical evidence that may be used to prove your claim.