How Evidence Is Used in a Car Accident Case: A Brief History

The American justice system requires the trier of fact to rely on a chain of reasoning to come to a conclusion about the defendant’s liability for certain injuries. This chain of reasoning uses logical inferences based on “evidence.” As our understanding of the natural world progresses, so do the methods that attorneys use in court to prove their case. This article delves into a brief history behind how evidence is used in car accident cases.

Types of Evidence

The use of evidence in court has its roots in the philosophy of “empiricism,” which asserts that knowledge of the natural world can only come from sensory experience. Hence the phrase “empirical evidence.” The principles of empiricism can be seen at play in the American legal system today. Rules of evidence deem that only witnesses who have “personal knowledge” of specific facts are qualified to testify as to their veracity. Personal knowledge is achieved through the sensory observation of certain facts and circumstances.

Evidence can be split between what is called “direct evidence” and “circumstantial evidence.” Direct evidence does not require someone to draw a logical inference to conclude a particular issue. For example, direct evidence that it was raining at night can come from eye-witness testimony alleging they were outside on the evening in question and directly observed the rain fall on them.

Circumstantial evidence requires one or more inferences to be drawn from the evidence in question to reach a conclusion about something. For example, circumstantial evidence that it was raining at night can come from witness testimony that the pavement and the surfaces of nearby objects were wet on the morning after the night in question.

Evidence can be further divided into categories like “testimonial evidence,” “documentary evidence” and “real” or “demonstrative evidence.” Testimonial evidence refers to evidence in the form of statements and assertions from witnesses or “declarants.” Documentary evidence refers to evidence derived from writings and photographs. Real or demonstrative evidence refers to non-testimonial evidence that can be observed by the court – such as the murder weapon in a homicide case, or a chart summarizing the conclusions of a scientific expert witness.

Use of Photographic Evidence

The rules of evidence which apply to all legal matters have been established throughout all states in the nation. Florida courts follow a distinct set of evidentiary rules, although they may overlap with many rules followed by other state courts and the Federal Rules of Evidence.

Photographs are a relatively modern invention born out of the nineteenth century. In comparison, the common law system has been around for thousands of years, and empiricism as we know it grew from the principles established by philosophers of the seventeenth century.

During the twentieth century, photographs were regarded as both real and documentary evidence. Due to a photographs ability to capture visual information in a specific instance of time, they were considered fairly reliable at conveying the fact of whatever the photo portrayed.

For example, in the 1960s, attorneys could take photographs of the scene of a car accident to show skid marks, the post-collision position of vehicles, and the location and extent of collision damage. As technology advanced, video footage was also used to show juries how an entire event unfolded through time, sometimes capturing the moments when a collision occurred.

Computer Modeling and Digital Data

Today, evidence relevant to a car accident case has many sources. Scientists who specialize in collision reconstruction can take several pieces of circumstantial evidence and conclude as to how a collision happened, including the respective speeds and positions of the cars at issue.

Under Section 90.702 of Florida’s Evidence Code, “If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or in determining a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify about it in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if:

  1. the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data;
  2. the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
  3. the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.”

Accordingly, if a party wanted to offer expert opinion testimony, they must first “lay a foundation” as to the expert’s qualifications, the evidentiary basis on which the expert reached their conclusions, and the reliability of the expert’s process of analysis.

As a practical concern, expert opinions should also be presented in a way that is easily digestible for the court and jury. This is particularly true when an accident reconstructionist’s expert opinion is offered as evidence in a car accident case.

Since the dawn of the computer age, accident reconstructionists have utilized computer-generated animation as a means of visually conveying their scientific findings and conclusions to the court. In 1997, the Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District officially approved of the use of computer-generated animation as evidence in car accident cases in Pierce v. State, 718 So.2d 806 (Fla.4th DCA 1997). The Court in Pierce held that computer animation may be admitted into evidence as a demonstrative exhibit that illustrates an expert’s opinion. In essence, a computer-rendered model of the accident must meet the requirements of Evidence Code, Section 90.702.

Furthermore, most cars have advanced computer systems that can record digital data about a vehicle’s operations. Similar to the flight recorder on an airplane, onboard computers for cars can provide crucial data for an accident. Data about a vehicle’s acceleration, brake application, engine status, and airbag status are among the circumstances a car’s computer data can evidence.

However, in its raw form, data from a car’s computer “black box” is unintelligible and requires deciphering. Thus, to admit digital operational data from a car’s computer into evidence, an attorney may have to enlist a qualified expert with a background in handling and interpreting such data. But the price of hiring such an expert may be worth paying as the vehicle’s operational data can help illuminate important details of a car accident.

Hire An Experienced Attorney

Although the types of evidence used in a car accident case have changed, a skilled and experienced attorney is always necessary to tie the evidence together into a comprehensive and persuasive narrative that a jury can understand. At Schlesinger Law Office, P.A., our attorney have decades of experience in the art of discovering, and using empirical evidence to support your car accident claim.

For a free consultation exploring your legal options with one of our talented attorneys, call us at (954) 467-8800.

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