There are thousands of motor vehicle accidents each year in Massachusetts that cause serious injuries. Additionally, car accidents are among the leading cause of death in Massachusetts. When someone is seriously or fatally injured in a motor vehicle accident that was caused by another driver, the accident victim or surviving family has the right to seek compensation for the injuries and losses caused by the crash. This is done by way of a personal injury or bodily injury claim or lawsuit. In order to obtain compensation, the other driver must be found to have cause the accident and injuries.
Many times, determining fault is not hard. Some crashes, however, are more difficult to determine how the accident happened and who was at fault. With these more complex accidents and severe or fatal injuries, an accident reconstruction may be necessary to determine liability and how to proceed with litigation. Below is an overview of the reconstruction and investigation of motor vehicle collisions in personal injury cases.
What is Accident Reconstruction?
Accident reconstruction is the process of determining how a motor vehicle accident occurred and who or what was the cause of the accident. An accident reconstruction is generally completed by an expert or specialist. The expert employs scientific methods to reconstruct the crash from the evidence and data collected from an accident to create the most probable scenario of how an accident happened.
An accident reconstruction can be very helpful for a plaintiff to be able to satisfy his or her burden of proof at trial and convince a jury that the defendant caused the crash and injuries. An accident reconstruction provides essential details and can clear up any confusion of how the crash occurred. Basically, an accident reconstruction creates a clear reenactment or picture of how the accident happened.
Why are Accident Reconstructions Needed?
Personal injury lawsuits are quite common after motor vehicle accidents. They often involve two or more vehicles. In some situations, an auto insurance carrier may accept liability when it is reasonably clear that their driver was at-fault and caused the crash. Those cases can usually be settled before a personal injury lawsuit is needed to be filed. However, with some car crashes, it can be difficult to determine how the accident happened and who was responsible. In those crashes, an auto insurance carrier often denies liability. When liability is denied, an accident victim often needs to file a personal injury lawsuit against the other driver to seek the financial compensation they deserve for their injuries and losses suffered in the crash.
The accident victim is usually the plaintiff in the lawsuit and he or she bears the burden to prove that the defendant (other driver) was responsible for causing the accident and injuries. In personal injury lawsuits, the defendant generally denies liability. This essentially challenges the plaintiff to prove his or her case. As stated above, it can be quite difficult in some accidents to establish exactly how the crash occurred and who was responsible for causing the accident. For example, when two individuals were seriously injured in a severe head-on crash on I-95 in Waltham, Massachusetts, it was extremely hard for anyone to determine which car was traveling the wrong way on the highway. An accident reconstruction was necessary to determine which vehicle was traveling the wrong way on the highway causing the crash.
These complex crashes make proving the case problematic for the plaintiff and his or her personal injury lawyer. As with many legal issues that are beyond the common knowledge of a jury, an expert may be needed. With complex crash facts and circumstances, an accident reconstruction expert may be required to reconstruct how the accident happened.
Typical Evidence Used in an Accident Reconstruction
As mentioned above, an accident reconstruction is usually prepared by an expert or team of experts. These specialists may be automotive engineers, biomechanical engineers and forensic experts who specialize in physics and vehicle dynamics. These experts compile all available evidence to reconstruct how an accident happened. Here is a brief list of some of the evidence accident reconstructionists generally gather and examine to perform their reconstruction:
Physical Evidence: Experts often examine the physical evidence of a car crash to begin to prepare an accident reconstruction. The physical evidence includes the two or more vehicles involved in the crash, any skid marks or other physical evidence left on the roadway or highway where the accident happened, such as gouges on the roads or guardrails, police reports and diagrams of the crash and other physical evidence. These pieces of evidence will allow an expert to begin establishing the layout of the accident scene. Sometimes, experts are not retained until after some physical evidence has been lost or moved. Thus, it is important for your personal injury attorney to gather as much information and evidence of the crash as soon as possible. This includes photographs of the scene and vehicles involved. Many times, an expert doesn’t have the benefit of examining the actual cars themselves. Photographs are essential to an accident reconstruction expert. The physical evidence will help an expert determine the preimpact position of the vehicles, the point of impact of each vehicle as well as the approximate speed of the vehicles involved.
Eyewitness Statements: Although physical evidence is generally considered the most important pieces of evidence, an eyewitness to the crash is always extremely helpful to understand what happened in an accident. Eyewitnesses may have observed one or both of the cars involved before the crash. They may be helpful to establishing which way each vehicle was traveling or the specific maneuvers of each vehicle just prior to the crash. While the responding police officers often get statements from any eyewitnesses, a personal injury lawyer and their investigators should always attempt to get their own statement from any eyewitnesses. This allows a plaintiff to be certain the eyewitnesses prior statements documented by the police are accurate and also may result in obtaining additional details of an accident. Additional details from eyewitnesses may be very helpful to an accident reconstruction expert to form an opinion as to how the accident occurred.
Weather Conditions: The weather conditions at the time of the accident are also an important piece of evidence in piecing together what occurred in an accident. Rain, snow or other sometimes dangerous weather conditions must all be considered in reconstructing an accident. The weather conditions may have contributed to a crash. Additionally, if the weather conditions were dangerous, such as rainy weather or snow and ice, an accident reconstruction expert may be able to determine if a particular vehicle was driving carelessly or unsafe in the weather conditions. While police reports or motor vehicle crash reports generally provide the weather conditions at the time of a crash, it may also be crucial to obtain specific weather reports for the day and time of the accident.
Traffic Signals and Signs: In cases where an accident reconstruction expert is needed or required, the traffic signals and signs on the roads or highway where the crash occurred are critical pieces of evidence. An expert almost always visits the scene of the crash to examine the roadways and document any traffic signs. This is important in accident cases where one party claims the other driver ignored a traffic sign or signal. An expert examines the placement of traffic signs and the lighting sequence of any traffic signals. This evidence together with the other evidence mentioned above may allow an expert to determine if a traffic sign or signal was ignored by an operator.
Accident Reconstruction in the Courtroom
In personal injury lawsuits in Massachusetts where an accident reconstruction is required, the expert is usually called as a witness at trial. As with all expert witnesses, he or she must be qualified as an expert before testifying. An experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney usually has specific accident reconstruction experts they may have worked with before or retains due to their knowledge and expertise. Thus, an experienced accident lawyer should know whether or not the expert is qualified to provide an expert opinion at trial.
An accident reconstruction expert’s testimony will assist the fact finder (e.g., the jury) in determining how an accident happened and help them decide who was responsible for causing the crash. Many accident reconstruction experts use diagrams or charts when testifying to explain the specifics of how an accident happened. Additionally, an expert may also produce a video or computer simulated reenactment of the accident. While these are relatively costly, these reenactments are very helpful and often impressive pieces of evidence to a jury’s understanding of how an accident occurred and determination of the issues presented in the case.
In some cases, however, an accident reconstruction expert may not need to testify at trial. If the expert’s report or reenactment is overwhelmingly powerful, an auto insurance company may consider settling the personal injury case prior to trial. In one particular case Mahaney & Pappas, LLP handled, after our accident reconstruction expert’s report of a crash that occurred in Sturbridge, Massachusetts was produced to the insurance company and their lawyers, they agreed to participate in a mediation. At the mediation, we were able to settle the personal injury lawsuit prior to trial and obtain a very favorable financial recovery for our injured client.
In accidents that result in catastrophic or fatal injuries, it is important for the accident victim or their surviving family members to seek the advice of an experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney. An experienced accident lawyer will determine if an accident reconstruction expert is needed to help put the accident victim in the best possible position to obtain the financial compensation they deserve.