The Role of Accident Reconstruction
in Wrongful Death Claims

-by Daniel J. Stevens, Partner

If you have a family member or loved one who has died because of an accident, you may want to hire an attorney to investigate the facts and circumstances of what happened. And if the accident was the fault of another person or corporation, you may want to consider bringing a wrongful death claim.

While the last thing you probably want to do while you are trying to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one is speak to a wrongful death attorney, an attorney experienced in wrongful death cases will be respectful of your situation and will work to avoid adding any stress to an already sad and stressful time in your life.

Indeed, a good wrongful death attorney will give you the comfort of knowing that he or she is taking the necessary steps to properly investigate the case while you are dealing with the sadness and shock that comes with losing a loved one in an accident.

The first, and crucial step in a wrongful death claim: gathering the evidence

When we are contacted about a possible wrongful death claim, the first thing we do is determine whether there is any evidence that needs to be preserved or photographed. In a motor vehicle crash, that evidence could include skid or gouge marks on a road, vehicles that were damaged in the crash, or the black boxes inside the vehicle or vehicles involved.

The role of Maine State Police accident reconstructionists in fatal accidents

Whenever an automobile crash in Maine results in an immediate fatality, the Maine State Police will generally perform an accident reconstruction. If a person is not deceased at the scene, however, they may not take this step.

If a reconstruction is performed, it generally includes the following:

  • Crash scene diagram – this includes various points of travel, impacts, and distances.
  • Photos – the State Police reconstructionists will take numerous photos of the scene and the vehicles.
  • Vehicle “autopsy” – the State Police often seize the vehicles involved in the crash for the purposes of doing vehicle “autopsies.” The vehicle autopsies assist in the reconstruction and can help determine whether any mechanical defects contributed to the crash.
  • Speed and distance calculations – the State Police reconstructionist will also attempt to determine speed and distance at various points along the way. Those calculations are based upon things like road surface, skid marks, gouge marks, and the nature and extent of vehicle damage.
  • Black box data – if one of more of the vehicles is equipped with a “black box,” the State reconstructionist may download and review the black box data to determine vehicle speed and brake and steering wheel action in the seconds leading up to the crash. “Black box” is a term used to describe the computer that many vehicles have that records this type of data.

The role of private accident reconstructionists in wrongful death cases

When our law office is contacted regarding a motor vehicle death in Maine, one of our first calls is to one of two local preferred private accident reconstructionists. Even when the State Police have performed an accident reconstruction, we still typically retain our own private reconstructionist for a second expert opinion.

The earlier a potential client contacts us, the earlier we can contact the reconstructionist. And the earlier we can contact the reconstructionist, the better. A good reconstructionist will want to visit the crash scene as soon as possible. I had one case where the private reconstructionist was actually at the crash scene while the State Police were still there!

The reconstructionists we use will visit the scene and inspect the vehicles involved in the crash; and if any of the vehicles are equipped with black boxes, they will want to arrange a download of the black box data. It is important to note that we always try to arrange vehicle inspections and black box downloads so that the other side’s reconstructionists may also be present. This is vital, because if there was any part of the reconstructionist’s work that could be viewed as “destructive,” then the other side could seek to have the case thrown out (or have evidence excluded from trial) on the grounds that important evidence was spoiled during the inspection process.

 

Examples: vehicle black box data as evidence in wrongful death claims

Black box data has been critical in many of our cases. In one case, the data proved my client was driving within the speed limit at the time of the crash, and that she jammed on the brakes and turned the wheel sharply to the right just before impact. This evidence was vitally important in proving that my client was driving carefully and that she saw that the crash was about to happen.

We had another case in which a pick-up truck ran a stop sign, T-boning my clients’ vehicle. The driver of the truck claimed he couldn’t stop due to a problem with the brakes. As soon as we heard that claim, we contacted the truck driver’s insurance company and demanded that the truck be preserved for inspection. My reconstructionist inspected the truck and conducted the black box download. We did this after notifying the insurance companies for the truck driver and the automotive garage that had worked on the brakes shortly before the crash. Those two insurance companies hired their own reconstructionists who also attended the vehicle inspection and black box download. My reconstructionist called me from the shop where the inspection and download took place and told me that the black box data proved that the truck driver was traveling 15 mph over the speed limit at the time of the crash and that he was already past the stop sign when he applied the brakes. My reconstructionist indicated that he could not say, one way of the other, whether the brakes were operating properly, but he could say that it really didn’t matter as the brakes were not applied until after it was too late.

These are just two of the many cases in which we have successfully used private accident reconstructionists.

So what does this all mean?

The moral of the story is that accident reconstructionists can be vitally important in establishing the cause, or causes, of a motor vehicle crash and who was at fault. In death cases, my clients are not alive to tell me how an accident happened, so I rely heavily on the expertise of accident reconstructionists to help me – and all parties on both sides of the case – understand why and how it occurred.

The key takeaway is to contact us as soon as possible after a crash, so that we can retain a reconstructionist for you. This step will help properly shape the investigation and ensure that crucial evidence is not lost or destroyed.

If you are suffering from the sudden loss of a loved one and want to discuss the possibility of pursuing a wrongful death claim, or if you are an attorney looking to refer a wrongful death case to someone with experience, please feel free to contact me at DStevens@StevensDayLaw.com or 207-430-3288.

Maine lawyer Daniel J. Stevens has been practicing law for over 25 years and has achieved some of the highest accolades available to an attorney. Dan’s practice focuses on litigation and dispute resolution. He has litigated, mediated, and arbitrated a wide array of cases ranging from accident and death cases to business, real estate, and will and trust disputes. In 2017, he was awarded Lawyer of the Year in Augusta, Maine for Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs, and was also recognized in The Best Lawyers in America for Commercial litigation, Litigation – Construction, Litigation – Real Estate, Litigation – Trusts and Estates, and Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs.

Contact Stevens & Day, LLP

82 Winthrop St.,
Augusta, ME 04330

207-430-3288

207-624-0399

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