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In your last 20 motor vehicle collision cases, how many times have you visited the scene of the crash or sought the drivers’ phone records? Once, twice … zero times?

These investigative steps should be second nature and common sense to the trial lawyer. Yet, many lawyers rarely visit the accident scene or pursue the driver’s phone records. Excuses are easy to make. Liability seems clear. There is no time to visit the scene. You can view the scene on Google Street View. The area is dangerous. Phone records are difficult to obtain without litigation. The case will settle quickly. Certainly, some cases are more clear than others, and the decision to forego these investigative steps can be justified. However, without a scene inspection or phone-record review, you will not know what you are missing. Or, even worse, what you are missing may come back to haunt you at trial.

In the representation of injured plaintiffs, we are regularly reminded of advice offered by Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Regardless of whether you represent the plaintiff or defendant, to best understand what the parties and witnesses observed and experienced, put on their shoes. Stand where they were.

Personal visits to accident scenes can offer benefits to your cases that cannot be obtained through your desktop tour of Google Earth.

Several years ago, a tractor trailer struck a motorcycle while traveling at night on a highway in a rural part of Pennsylvania. The commercial driver told the police that the motorcycle was already disabled on its side in the road before he struck it. The motorcyclist must have lost control in the rain and crashed prior to the truck’s arrival. Our client, the motorcyclist, had no recollection of the collision.

Physical evidence was crucial to determining liability—was the motorcycle on its side prior to impact, or was it upright? If the cycle was already down, there was little hope for recovery. The front bumper of the tractor trailer was damaged in the collision. However, the driver reportedly ripped the broken bumper section off the truck and threw it away. Without it, we would be unable to determine where exactly the bumper came into contact with the motorcycle.

During a trip to the area, we pulled off to the side of the road where we believed the collision occurred. Frankly, it seemed pointless. The police and a private investigator previously inspected and documented the scene. The roadway was no different than as depicted in photos and via Google. It was littered with debris from countless motorists. We jumped over the guardrail to create distance between us and the speeding highway traffic. While kicking somewhat aimlessly through knee-high weeds, we noticed something on the ground shift. It was a large piece of plastic. As improbable as it seemed, it looked like it just might be a section of a truck’s bumper. We documented where we found the object and took it with us.

Back at the office and with the help of our expert, we confirmed that we found the missing bumper. The bumper’s damage pattern aligned with the rear of an upright exemplar motorcycle. As the defense tendered its insurance policy shortly after, counsel joked about the unlikely odds of us finding the bumper. In hindsight, the odds were good. We just had to look.

Your visit to the scene could similarly uncover a witness or useful information. During the representation of a client who tripped over a raised floor mat, we visited the office complex where she fell. The type of mat that caused her fall was in clear view. This visit intentionally coincided with the lunch hour. Employees of the complex’s tenant companies milled about outside. After confirming that they were not the defendant’s employees, we spoke to a woman who was willing to share her observations about the flimsy, buckle-prone mats and the defendant management company’s unresponsive service. This short lunch trip offered valuable information about the defendant’s practices and a likely fact witness.

New theories of liability or defendants may present themselves during a scene inspection. In a particularly tragic collision, we represented a young girl who was a passenger on a school bus that had made contact with a tractor trailer and subsequently rolled over. We visited the accident scene to get a first-hand look at the landscape and any tire markings. An eyewitness to the collision reported that the tractor trailer stayed “rock steady” in his lane, thereby insulating the truck driver as a defendant. By going to the scene shortly after crash, we found additional markings, not evident on the police diagram. Those markings established the case against the truck driver who was not “rock steady” in his lane. Even in this serious case, where the police reconstructionist used Total Station laser scanning, the police got it wrong. Had we relied only upon the witness report or police investigation, the client would have lost the benefit of recovering damages from the commercial trucking policy.

With the advent of affordable surveillance cameras, odds of a collision or a trip-and-fall being captured on video are increasing. Use of surveillance cameras is no longer limited to the corner convenience store or retail shop. Analysts predict that the video surveillance market will increase at an estimated compound annual growth rate of more than 16 percent over then next six years. Chances are that someone on your street already has a surveillance camera. If an accident occurs in front of their monitored property or even down the street, the camera could catch it. But, the attorney handling the case will never know that the footage exists if he relies solely upon the client’s or the police report account of the accident. During the investigation of a motorcycle fatality, our visit to the accident scene alerted us to a surveillance camera. We approached the owner to request the footage and were met with cooperation. The footage not only captured the collision but allowed us to dismantle the notion that our client caused the collision.

Scene inspections are additionally useful in your decision to accept or reject a particular case. Within days of receiving another motorcycle accident case, we visited the scene. We were told that the potential client was riding his motorcycle down a two lane residential road. A car was parked on the shoulder of the motorcyclist’s lane. As the motorcyclist passed the parked car, an oncoming vehicle entered his lane and fatally struck him. An examination of the scene via Google Street View seemed to confirm the description of the landscape and roadway. The case sounded viable. Being at the scene told a much different story.

Only in person could we see that the road was deceptively narrow. It was physically improbable that the motorcyclist could stay in his own lane while passing the parked vehicle. The more likely scenario was that he entered the approaching vehicle’s lane. The investment in this scene inspection amounted to a tank of gas and roughly a work day of time due to the travel. Some may consider the day spent on an unviable case a wasted day. But, if you consider the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in expenses that were preserved by declining the case, the scene inspection was actually a day well spent.

As enjoyable as it is to illustrate the importance of scene inspections through successful anecdotal accounts, the reality is that these cases are the exception, not the norm. More often than not, little new evidence is discovered. Nonetheless, we have yet to leave an inspection empty handed. At a minimum, every scene inspection will offer you the first-hand, personal view of where the facts of the ­accident unfolded. You will be able to visualize the parties’ perspectives. You will understand the landmarks and line of sight obstructions. If you go at the same time of day or night as the accident, you will understand the lighting and glare and shade conditions. When the witness reports seeing the collision from the corner coffee shop, you will have the first-hand knowledge that the witness’ report is impossible; the glare through that shop window is too strong to have seen the collision.

After inspecting the scene, developing your case and commencing litigation, subpoena the other driver’s phone records. You should have already secured your own client’s records from them to confirm they were not the distracted driver. People lie and forget. Phone records don’t.

In two recent truck accident cases, each defendant driver was asked in written interrogatories a number of questions directed at their phone use. They were also specifically asked: “Were you using your mobile phone for any purpose at the time of the collision.” In each case, the driver provided verified answers that indicated they were not using the phone. During the video deposition of one driver, he testified that he did not remember if he even had his phone with him. Both drivers proved to be lying or suffering a memory lapse. The phone records, which were easily subpoenaed, demonstrated that each had been on lengthy phone calls at the moment of the collision.

Distracted driving is an epidemic. Few are immune to the impulse to check the phone, text or engage in phone conversations while driving. Truck drivers are as susceptible to the urge as a noncommercial driver or a pedestrian on the street looking at his phone. You have probably looked at your phone at least twice while reading this article. To forego obtaining records that would confirm or deny phone use is to ignore the likely possibility that either your client or the other driver was distracted.

Several people are cited for advising: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” Regardless of who said it, it is good advice for the trial lawyer. Don’t make excuses. Even if you accept a case only a month before the statute of limitations will expire, race to the scene. Look for surveillance. Subpoena the phone records as soon as you file suit. Subpoena the phone and retain an expert to inspect it. Willingly passing on the scene inspection or an attempt to get phone records is a disservice. If you do not precisely understand what the parties and witnesses were doing and perceiving, you will have a much harder time explaining it to the jury—even if your grandmother is on the panel.

In your last 20 motor vehicle collision cases, how many times have you visited the scene of the crash or sought the drivers’ phone records? Once, twice … zero times?

These investigative steps should be second nature and common sense to the trial lawyer. Yet, many lawyers rarely visit the accident scene or pursue the driver’s phone records. Excuses are easy to make. Liability seems clear. There is no time to visit the scene. You can view the scene on Google Street View. The area is dangerous. Phone records are difficult to obtain without litigation. The case will settle quickly. Certainly, some cases are more clear than others, and the decision to forego these investigative steps can be justified. However, without a scene inspection or phone-record review, you will not know what you are missing. Or, even worse, what you are missing may come back to haunt you at trial.

In the representation of injured plaintiffs, we are regularly reminded of advice offered by Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Regardless of whether you represent the plaintiff or defendant, to best understand what the parties and witnesses observed and experienced, put on their shoes. Stand where they were.

Personal visits to accident scenes can offer benefits to your cases that cannot be obtained through your desktop tour of Google Earth.

Several years ago, a tractor trailer struck a motorcycle while traveling at night on a highway in a rural part of Pennsylvania. The commercial driver told the police that the motorcycle was already disabled on its side in the road before he struck it. The motorcyclist must have lost control in the rain and crashed prior to the truck’s arrival. Our client, the motorcyclist, had no recollection of the collision.

Physical evidence was crucial to determining liability—was the motorcycle on its side prior to impact, or was it upright? If the cycle was already down, there was little hope for recovery. The front bumper of the tractor trailer was damaged in the collision. However, the driver reportedly ripped the broken bumper section off the truck and threw it away. Without it, we would be unable to determine where exactly the bumper came into contact with the motorcycle.

During a trip to the area, we pulled off to the side of the road where we believed the collision occurred. Frankly, it seemed pointless. The police and a private investigator previously inspected and documented the scene. The roadway was no different than as depicted in photos and via Google . It was littered with debris from countless motorists. We jumped over the guardrail to create distance between us and the speeding highway traffic. While kicking somewhat aimlessly through knee-high weeds, we noticed something on the ground shift. It was a large piece of plastic. As improbable as it seemed, it looked like it just might be a section of a truck’s bumper. We documented where we found the object and took it with us.

Back at the office and with the help of our expert, we confirmed that we found the missing bumper. The bumper’s damage pattern aligned with the rear of an upright exemplar motorcycle. As the defense tendered its insurance policy shortly after, counsel joked about the unlikely odds of us finding the bumper. In hindsight, the odds were good. We just had to look.

Your visit to the scene could similarly uncover a witness or useful information. During the representation of a client who tripped over a raised floor mat, we visited the office complex where she fell. The type of mat that caused her fall was in clear view. This visit intentionally coincided with the lunch hour. Employees of the complex’s tenant companies milled about outside. After confirming that they were not the defendant’s employees, we spoke to a woman who was willing to share her observations about the flimsy, buckle-prone mats and the defendant management company’s unresponsive service. This short lunch trip offered valuable information about the defendant’s practices and a likely fact witness.

New theories of liability or defendants may present themselves during a scene inspection. In a particularly tragic collision, we represented a young girl who was a passenger on a school bus that had made contact with a tractor trailer and subsequently rolled over. We visited the accident scene to get a first-hand look at the landscape and any tire markings. An eyewitness to the collision reported that the tractor trailer stayed “rock steady” in his lane, thereby insulating the truck driver as a defendant. By going to the scene shortly after crash, we found additional markings, not evident on the police diagram. Those markings established the case against the truck driver who was not “rock steady” in his lane. Even in this serious case, where the police reconstructionist used Total Station laser scanning, the police got it wrong. Had we relied only upon the witness report or police investigation, the client would have lost the benefit of recovering damages from the commercial trucking policy.

With the advent of affordable surveillance cameras, odds of a collision or a trip-and-fall being captured on video are increasing. Use of surveillance cameras is no longer limited to the corner convenience store or retail shop. Analysts predict that the video surveillance market will increase at an estimated compound annual growth rate of more than 16 percent over then next six years. Chances are that someone on your street already has a surveillance camera. If an accident occurs in front of their monitored property or even down the street, the camera could catch it. But, the attorney handling the case will never know that the footage exists if he relies solely upon the client’s or the police report account of the accident. During the investigation of a motorcycle fatality, our visit to the accident scene alerted us to a surveillance camera. We approached the owner to request the footage and were met with cooperation. The footage not only captured the collision but allowed us to dismantle the notion that our client caused the collision.

Scene inspections are additionally useful in your decision to accept or reject a particular case. Within days of receiving another motorcycle accident case, we visited the scene. We were told that the potential client was riding his motorcycle down a two lane residential road. A car was parked on the shoulder of the motorcyclist’s lane. As the motorcyclist passed the parked car, an oncoming vehicle entered his lane and fatally struck him. An examination of the scene via Google Street View seemed to confirm the description of the landscape and roadway. The case sounded viable. Being at the scene told a much different story.

Only in person could we see that the road was deceptively narrow. It was physically improbable that the motorcyclist could stay in his own lane while passing the parked vehicle. The more likely scenario was that he entered the approaching vehicle’s lane. The investment in this scene inspection amounted to a tank of gas and roughly a work day of time due to the travel. Some may consider the day spent on an unviable case a wasted day. But, if you consider the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in expenses that were preserved by declining the case, the scene inspection was actually a day well spent.

As enjoyable as it is to illustrate the importance of scene inspections through successful anecdotal accounts, the reality is that these cases are the exception, not the norm. More often than not, little new evidence is discovered. Nonetheless, we have yet to leave an inspection empty handed. At a minimum, every scene inspection will offer you the first-hand, personal view of where the facts of the ­accident unfolded. You will be able to visualize the parties’ perspectives. You will understand the landmarks and line of sight obstructions. If you go at the same time of day or night as the accident, you will understand the lighting and glare and shade conditions. When the witness reports seeing the collision from the corner coffee shop, you will have the first-hand knowledge that the witness’ report is impossible; the glare through that shop window is too strong to have seen the collision.

After inspecting the scene, developing your case and commencing litigation, subpoena the other driver’s phone records. You should have already secured your own client’s records from them to confirm they were not the distracted driver. People lie and forget. Phone records don’t.

In two recent truck accident cases, each defendant driver was asked in written interrogatories a number of questions directed at their phone use. They were also specifically asked: “Were you using your mobile phone for any purpose at the time of the collision.” In each case, the driver provided verified answers that indicated they were not using the phone. During the video deposition of one driver, he testified that he did not remember if he even had his phone with him. Both drivers proved to be lying or suffering a memory lapse. The phone records, which were easily subpoenaed, demonstrated that each had been on lengthy phone calls at the moment of the collision.

Distracted driving is an epidemic. Few are immune to the impulse to check the phone, text or engage in phone conversations while driving. Truck drivers are as susceptible to the urge as a noncommercial driver or a pedestrian on the street looking at his phone. You have probably looked at your phone at least twice while reading this article. To forego obtaining records that would confirm or deny phone use is to ignore the likely possibility that either your client or the other driver was distracted.

Several people are cited for advising: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” Regardless of who said it, it is good advice for the trial lawyer. Don’t make excuses. Even if you accept a case only a month before the statute of limitations will expire, race to the scene. Look for surveillance. Subpoena the phone records as soon as you file suit. Subpoena the phone and retain an expert to inspect it. Willingly passing on the scene inspection or an attempt to get phone records is a disservice. If you do not precisely understand what the parties and witnesses were doing and perceiving, you will have a much harder time explaining it to the jury—even if your grandmother is on the panel.