Using Expert Witnesses to "Reconstruct" Automobile Accidents

Car accidents often involve a multitude of factors. Eyewitness testimony alone can be insufficient to accurately reconstruct the underlying events. In many cases, expert witnesses are employed by both sides in a personal injury lawsuit to present the jury with possible reconstructions based on time-tested scientific methods. But, introducing expert testimony often leads to preliminary sparring between the parties over the qualifications of such witnesses, as a recent decision by a federal judge in White Plains illustrates.

Boykin v. Western Express, Inc.

Four years ago, a woman was driving on Interstate 84 in New York. It had been snowing that day but the interstate was plowed. A tractor trailer moved from an adjacent lane and struck the woman's vehicle, causing it swerve across the road. The vehicle struck the tractor trailer at least once more before coming to a stop in a snowbank.

The woman subsequently sued the company that owned the tractor trailer for negligence. She said the accident caused serious shoulder and spinal injuries requiring two surgeries. The case remains pending before U.S. District Judge Nelson S. Roman in Westchester County federal court.

On February 6th of this year, Judge Roman issued an evidentiary ruling regarding the plaintiff's introduction of expert testimony. Keep in mind, although New York law governs the underlying lawsuit, federal courts apply their own rules of evidence. As the U.S. Supreme Court has explained, federal judges must act as “gatekeepers” with respect to expert testimony. In this case, Judge Roman had to determine whether expert witnesses offered by the plaintiff and defendant are qualified to testify before the jury.

Here, the defendant corporation presented the report of an accident reconstruction specialist who opined the plaintiff's injuries were not the result of the crash with the tractor trailer. A reconstruction specialist is someone who tries to estimate the movements of vehicles during an accident based on evidence gathered after the fact, such as vehicle damage or marks on the road. In this case, the defense expert performed both an accident reconstruction and a biomechanical analysis, which involves estimating the movements of a vehicle occupant in order to determine the likely cause of any injuries.

In brief, the defense expert said his biomechanical analysis found the forces acting on the plaintiff during the accident “were below accepted injury thresholds” and “not consistent with causing” the injuries she claimed. To rebut this, the plaintiff presented her own expert, who suggested numerous flaws in the defense expert's methodology. For example, the plaintiff's expert said the defense expert's analysis relied on numerous unknown variables.

The defense moved to exclude the plaintiff's rebuttal witness on the grounds that he was not a “biomechanical engineer.” Judge Roman said that did not matter, since the expert was offering testimony related to accident reconstruction and biomechanical analysis, two fields where the witness had demonstrated substantial expertise. The judge said he would not exclude a witness simply because he lacked a particular degree or credential.

As to the substance of the expert's testimony, Judge Roman found he employed generally accepted scientific methods in arriving at his conclusions. Obviously the plaintiff and defense experts reached different conclusions, but ultimately they can both testify, enabling the jury to make a final determination for itself as to which reconstruction of the accident is more credible.

Fighting the High-Price Experts

Not every motor vehicle accident requires a detailed reconstruction by highly qualified (and expensive) experts. But, if you are a plaintiff in a personal injury case and facing a well-funded defendant who can afford such expertise, it is important to have a qualified New York accident attorney on your side. Contact our office right away if you need to speak with an attorney.