Our firm has handled Oregon and Washington auto collisoin cases involving catastrophic injury, and even fatalities. Often, these cases require accident reconstructionists to investigate the physical evidence to determine how I collision occurred. A recent newspaper article reported on the Oregon State Police amending the findings of an investigation of a fatal collision, which has obvious legal implications. This article summarizes how accident reconstruction works.
If there is a fatal auto collision in Oregon, the Oregon State Police will send an accident reconstuctionist to the scene, along with several investigating officers. Witness inteviews are often taped, and video and photographs will document the conditions of the accident scene. The reconstructionist want to know what people saw, but he or she is also interested in getting as much raw, objective data as possible. Road surface conditions, gouges or marks in the road, skid marks, debris location, and vehicle positions are all critical pieces of information. This is because these pieces of information are known, and objective, and the more of that kind of information the reconstructionist has, the more confidence he or she will have in the conclusions made.
In many injury cases, there is no accident reconstructionist or engineer present at the collision scene. However, an engineer can review police reports, witness statements, photographs of property damage, and visit the collision scene after the fact to get as much objective information as possible. In many cases, an engineer can gather enough physical evidence to provide an opinion as to what most probably happened to cause the collision. Still, even in the best case, a reconstructionist may have to rely on estimates, like a witnesses perception of speed of travel, or the walking speed of a pedestrian entering a cross walk.
After the accident reconstructionist or engineer has obtained as much evidence as possible, he or she then begins to work backwards with the evidence available to re-create the events leading up to the collision. For example, skid mark measurements and some basic information about the vehicle involved can be used to estimate a vehicle's speed at the time the driver applied the brakes. Photographs of a collision scene showing the location of a vehicle at rest after striking a pedestrian may provide enough information to estimate where the striking vehicle was at the time the pedestrian entered a cross walk. Then, applying known information about reaction times, an expert reconstructionist can help a jury determine whether a driver had time to stop, or was going too fast under the conditions.
In the end, however, the opinion of an accident reconstructionist is only as strong as the physical evidence he or she has to work with, again showing the importance of early investigation. A jury has to carefully weigh the validity of any assumptions, or "givens" that go into any expert opinion, especially when two experts come to completely different conclusions. In some cases, the scientific method an expert may use is not generally accepted, and the Judge may decide that it is not even reliable enough to present to a jury.
If you have a question about a serious auto collision in Washington or Oregon, give us a call at 503 325 8600. We are happy to share our experience with you.