A key aspect of any personal injury or product liability case involving a vehicular accident is the reconstruction of that accident. Accident reconstruction is the ability to determine the path the vehicles traveled, the angle of the impact, the speeds involved, and the rotations of the vehicles. It is exactly what it sounds like – the ability to reconstruct what exactly happened in an accident. It is the foundation upon which most cases are built. It is especially important in a product liability case because the exact details of how the accident happened is what experts, such as an occupant kinematics expert and a defect expert, rely upon in forming their opinions. For example, in order to determine how a passenger in a vehicle moved during an accident, the occupant kinematics expert must first know how the vehicles were impacted and how the vehicle moved, all of which come from the accident reconstructionist.
For the most part, accident reconstruction requires the retention of an expert. But, there are some basic steps anyone can take in looking at an accident that will give an individual a general idea about how the accident happened. First and foremost is to get a copy of the accident report as soon as possible. The accident report contains vital information that can lay the foundation for a determination as to whether a case exists. Although all accident reports differ in each state (some states’ reports are more thorough than others), most reports will contain speed estimates, information about the occupants’ seatbelt usage, a narrative from the investigating police officer as to how he believes the accident happened, and a conclusion regarding who was at fault. The report will also contain eyewitness information and whether any accident scene photographs were taken. The accident report is the engine that drives the initial investigation into a case.
The next step to take is to secure the vehicle involved in the accident. The vehicle is the most critical piece of evidence in reconstructing an accident. By inspecting the vehicle, you can get an idea of the angle of impact, an estimate of the speeds involved, and determine if there is any evidence on the seatbelt to suggest the occupant was using it at the time of the accident. These are just a few of the many pieces of evidence the vehicle holds. Thus, it is vitally important to secure the vehicle. Typically, the accident report has information on where the vehicle is being stored and the insurance company involved. I suggest sending a preservation letter to both the storage location and the insurance company. The preservation letter should explain that you are investigating the accident and that the vehicle is a key piece of evidence that should not be altered, amended, or destroyed in any way. It should also contain instructions for them to call upon receipt of your letter.
Another reason to preserve the vehicle as quickly as possible is that the vehicle probably contains an event data recorder, more commonly referred to as the black box. These black boxes were introduced in automobiles as a by-product of airbags. A variety of sensors collect information that is processed by the black box. The box ultimately decides whether to deploy the airbag in an accident. The black box is designed to retain portions of the data from the accident. Afterwards, the data can be downloaded. The type of information stored by these black boxes depends upon the vehicle module and the nature of the accident. Certain boxes store information on engine speed, vehicle speed, brake status, throttle position, and seatbelt usage. The equipment to download the data from the black box is commercially available for certain model vehicles, including some General Motors and Ford vehicles. The black box data contain valuable information that can be useful to the reconstruction of the accident.
The next step is get to the accident scene as soon as possible and photograph it. The accident scene may contain skid marks, yaw marks, gouges, divots, vehicle tracks, and the like, which are vital tools necessary for any reconstruction. Unfortunately, a lot of these pieces of evidence are lost over time. If the police did not take scene photographs, it is especially critical to document the accident scene as soon as possible after the accident, before vital physical evidence is lost. Of course, if the police did take photographs at the scene, it may not be as important to document the scene yourself. The great thing about the police photos is that the vehicles are typically shown in their final resting position and, for the most part, the photos attempt to document the path of travel of the vehicle. Experts really like police photographs. It is amazing the technology that is available to experts. For example, using technology known as photogrammetry, the experts can measure objects from photographs. It’s most important feature is the fact that objects can be measured without being touched. The technique is extremely useful to experts in situations where all the physical marks on the roadway are gone. The police photographs can be used, along with photogrammetry, to reconstruct the accident.
Finally, it is crucial to talk with the investigating police officer, as well as any eyewitnesses to the accident. The problem with eyewitness testimony is its reliability. There have been times when three witnesses will give three different versions of how a single accident occurred. Some witnesses try to be too helpful. They will tell you what they think they saw, not what actually happened. Or, they will hear a noise, look up, and see cars spinning around, then quickly theorize what must have happened. Then there is that time-lapse memory thing when, two years after the accident, they simply have forgotten the details of the accident. Yet, you cannot overlook the importance of getting either recorded or written statements from eyewitnesses as soon as possible after the accident. Although you do not want to completely rely upon the eyewitnesses, it certainly helps a case when, as you are putting the pieces back together, some of the things the witnesses told you now make sense in the context of the accident reconstruction.
In conclusion, the above pieces of evidence form the foundation of any accident reconstruction. The information should be gathered as soon as possible after an accident occurs. Information is much more reliable the closer in time to the accident. These items are the nuts and bolts of the field of accident reconstruction. I appreciate very much Dana Taunton, who is in our Personal Injury Section, providing this information for our readers. Hopefully, it will prove to be both educational and helpful.
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