1/28/2008

It's All About Choice

Finding the "right" accident reconstruction expert for your claims management team

By Robert E. Stearns

In most cases, choice is a good thing. This is especially true when choice allows us to discriminate among options that please us or enhance our sense of well-being. But when large reserves are on the line in a potentially difficult traffic collision claim, choosing the “right” accident reconstruction expert can be a confusing, stressful, and difficult assignment.

Your choice of an expert ultimately touches on numerous important issues. Choosing wisely means retaining an expert who is technically competent, a good communicator, well versed in the latest scientific research, unflappable under cross-examination, unimpeachable as an expert witness, and brutally honest with you about the strengths and weaknesses of your claim management position.

The right expert will also be an approachable, available and friendly team player—essentially, a pleasurable person to work with. What you do not want is an expert who is arrogant, high-maintenance, or who tells you what they think you want to hear. This often results in things falling apart like a house of cards when the case faces the scrutiny of legal examination. There are few things more frustrating to a claims professional than wasting big money on a bad claim position that was encouraged by a faulty expert opinion.

Understanding the Industry
So how does one find that right accident reconstruction expert? To start, it is helpful to understand the accident reconstruction industry. The professional field has grown dramatically since the 1980s, aided by the boom of personal computers. This technological advancement made it possible for individuals to perform complex technical analysis of complicated accidents in a manner that previously was the domain of a select few academic professionals—likely armed with pocket protectors and slide rule calculators.

At the same time, the advent of the hand-held calculator made complicated mathematics child’s play. Thus, there are now thousands of individuals proclaiming the ability to reconstruct traffic collisions that are aided by means of a math formula or computerized simulation. Courtrooms are now full of so-called experts who in actuality have little real experience in collision analysis but are able to punch in numbers as well as any high school math or science teacher.

Finding Where the Experts “Grow”
In general, accident reconstructionists tend to come from one of two backgrounds. Many are former law enforcement officers who became exposed to collision reconstruction while serving as traffic investigators for various local or state police agencies. Most of these individuals will have received many hours of specialized training dealing with collision investigation and/or accident reconstruction.

They will also have real life practical experience, conducting on-scene crash investigations of hundreds or thousands of traffic accidents. In terms of practical experience, such individuals may have impressive credentials since they have been exposed time and again on an up close and personal level to all that crash investigation entails.

Nevertheless, it must also be recognized that many people with law enforcement backgrounds tend not to be strong in the academic disciplines of engineering and science associated with the foundations of accident reconstruction. This can be a detriment in that accident reconstruction is best defined as the use of scientific principles and the analysis of available physical evidence to determine how an accident occurred.
The other background many accident reconstruction experts come from is engineering. People from this category usually have earned a degree in either mechanical or civil engineering. They generally possess a strong academic background loaded with courses of study in physics, mathematics, mechanics, and forensic engineering principles.

However, few engineers have significant practical experience in viewing or investigating collision scenes prior to the movement and/or disruption of physical evidence associated with the accident. To counter this vocational shortfall, some engineers become involved in crash testing programs that allow them the opportunity to view crash events in a realistic, controlled environment.

Under such conditions, participating scientists can learn first-hand how cars interact in collision situations. Having the opportunity to reconstruct actual crashes staged in a research environment makes it possible for engineers to validate their theoretical knowledge while also capturing numerous details useful for analysis of real world crashes involving similar vehicles and physical conditions.

It’s important to recognize that there are excellent collision analysts coming from both the law enforcement and engineering fields, just as there are also inexperienced and incompetent practitioners coming out of both backgrounds. The key quality to consider is competence.

To achieve a high level of competence, an individual who wants to become a good reconstruction expert will embark on a life-long quest of specialized knowledge and experience, taking advantage of every opportunity available for training and learning in such a way as to fill in gaps in his or her curriculum vitae. Pay close attention to the breadth of the expert’s history.

Assessing an Expert’s Qualifications
For claims professionals seeking the best expert, there will be investigation and effort necessary to sort out the true qualifications of individuals vying for a spot on the claims team. This effort should be considered an investment, since it is highly likely that the discovery of a truly qualified expert will result in repeated use of that expert as a primary choice for the claims team.

Once a good relationship is established with the right expert, the investigative work will pay dividends. The claims professional will feel confident that they can pick up the phone and go straight to the right expert for the job without having to waste additional time and effort running down a suitable reconstructionist.
Questions helpful in assessing an accident reconstruction expert’s true qualifications
  • How many traffic collisions have they reconstructed?
  • Did they have an opportunity to learn accident reconstruction in an environment where they could apprentice under the active mentoring of another competent collision expert?
  • Have they completed a full curriculum of accident reconstruction training courses from recognized training providers (e.g. Northwestern University’s Traffic Institute, the University of North Florida IPTM, Texas A&M University’s Engineering Extension Service)?
  • Have they successfully achieved accreditation as a traffic collision reconstructionist by the Accreditation Commission on Traffic Accident Reconstruction (ACTAR)? If not, why?
  • Do they teach accident reconstruction in schools or seminars and receive favorable evaluations?
  • Can they testify from personal experience in crash testing exercises designed to validate reconstruction methodology according to Daubert, Fry, or Kuomo court standards?
  • Do they regularly participate in accident reconstruction seminars and training to stay current with technology changes?
  • Can they effectively explain the methodology used in reconstructing collisions?
  • Can they demonstrate how reconstruction theory is derived from math and physics?
  • What kind of testimony and/or trial experience do they have?
  • Can they provide references attesting to their skills in the areas of technical competence, interpersonal relationships among team members, and effective communication with team members and judges/juries?
What Your Expert Should Accomplish for You
Assuming that due diligence has led you to an expert that is a good fit for your claims team, you must determine what needs to be accomplished by their employment. Ideally, an accident reconstruction expert will build a case for the formulation of conclusive opinions about an accident’s causation or physical parameters. This typically includes the ability to prove what happened during a collision event by evaluating the evidence, applying appropriate scientific principles, and arriving at reasonable conclusions.

It may also mean the chance to demonstrate what could not have happened during a collision—often an important factor in cases involving fraud or material misrepresentation. Ultimately, your expert should become a means of communicating information persuasively to a judge or jury that otherwise might be unfamiliar with accident investigation principles.

The expert’s opinion will be carefully scrutinized within the litigation environment. Therefore they must be able to successfully defend their opinions and observations. Case law generally holds that expert testimony must be based on scientific principles that show “general acceptance” in the relevant scientific community. To determine whether or not they can defend their determinations within this context, the claims professional must be prepared to require the expert to demonstrate validity. To that end, you should dialogue with them to be certain the following objectives are met within the accident reconstruction analysis:
  • A thorough listing of all opinions and conclusions must be developed and presented to the claims team.
  • Each opinion and conclusion must have a valid basis.
  • Techniques or methodology used in reaching opinions must have examined validity, based on specified underlying scientific principles.
  • Proof of validity must be demonstrated to the trier of fact.
  • Proof that under underlying scientific principles were properly applied must be demonstrated.
Putting it All Together
In the final analysis, finding that right accident reconstruction expert involves a significant amount of work for the claims professional. Considering the potential costs associated with error in this regard, the work is well worth it. Legitimate experts will not object to answering questions associated with the claims professional’s due diligence, especially since true professionals are happy to see measures employed that help weed out the less competent members of the profession.

Many accident reconstruction experts provide free training on various subjects to claims personnel, recognizing that such training ultimately helps educate potential clients concerning issues that directly involve their utilization of expert assistance. For the claims professional, having an opportunity to observe the potential expert in a training environment frequently provides a chance to see them in a stressful communication setting.

How well that expert expresses ideas and imparts knowledge, and how well they respond to questions, can be valid indicators of their potential for success in the litigation environment. If the expert cannot impress students in a training environment, can they be expected to convince a judge or jury in a courtroom setting?

In this age of information, it should not be difficult to conduct a basic investigation sufficient for finding the right expert for your claims management team. Utilize the various available Internet sites and groups, such as attorney list-serve organizations used by defense counsel that provide a wealth of information about specific experts familiar to attorneys who encounter them regularly in courtrooms. And,of course, it is wise to consult with fellow claims professionals concerning their experience with experts and whom they would recommend.

The right expert—one with a good understanding of the accident reconstruction profession and the ins and outs of competent qualifications—is out there. Taking the time to find the right person will enhance your claims team greatly for today and the future.

Robert E. Stearns, of Collision Reconstruction and Forensic Analysis, can be reached by e-mail at actar661@cs.com or visit www.accidentreconstruction.com/rstearns.


Robert E. Stearns is with Collision Reconstruction and Forensic Analysis.

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