Accidents Will Happen, Again and Again, For Those Who Re-Create Them in Insurance Cases

There is nothing sudden or violent about Dwayne “Red” Owen. A large man with a ready smile under a thin white beard, Owen suggests Santa Claus puttering around the house a few days after Christmas. As many of his clients will tell you, it takes a man like Owen–gentle and patient–to sort through the snarl of burned and crushed cars, mangled trucks and broken bodies that are often the only evidence that remains after a traffic accident.

Owen is an accident reconstructionist, based in Champaign. He finds out what went wrong and who is at fault when motor vehicles smash into each other.

“You go to a scene, it’s total chaos and you’re the person who organizes it and straightens things out,” Owen explained with pride.

There are thousands of reconstructionists around the country, and Owen is one of the very best, says attorney Paul Nemoy of Howard & Nemoy, a Chicago firm that frequently hires accident reconstructionists.

Experts like Owen are increasingly important because of one of the great paradoxes of American motor vehicle safety. This will possibly be the safest year for motorists since records have been kept. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle deaths and injuries have plummeted over the last three decades. Yet, as driving becomes safer and accidents rarer, far more money is awarded each year to those injured in motor vehicle accidents.

Because of higher medical and auto repair costs, faster cars and more litigious culture, automobile and truck accident claims have grown into a multibillion-dollar annual business, says Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute, a data analysis firm for the insurance industry.

With so much money at stake, lawyers representing both plaintiffs and defendants call on accident reconstructionists to provide expert testimony in cases often worth millions of dollars.

There probably would be no accident reconstructionists and there would likely be many more accidents if it were not for Northwestern University’s Traffic Institute and its small staff of academics. These pioneers were the first serious scholars to study why motor vehicle accidents happen and how they can be prevented. Their research led to the laws that have so drastically reduced traffic accidents and deaths. And their work created the field of accident reconstruction. Red Owen, like most prominent reconstructionists, learned his craft there, and he now works for Ruhl & Associates Forensic Inc., an accident reconstruction firm with offices in Phoenix as well as Champaign.

Owen can spend years studying crushed cars, faint tire marks, bloodstains, broken bones. He feeds all of this data into an amazing computer. Developed over decades by the National Transportation Safety Board, this computer there are only 26 like it in the worldruns through countless millions of scenarios to create 3-D simulations of an accident. Once the data is entered, Owen can view the impact nanosecond by nanosecond and figure out who was going in what direction at what speed when the accident happened.

At first, Owen doesn’t submit anything in writing because if his conclusions hurt his client’s case–as often happens–a written report can only do further damage. If Owen’s findings are favorable, though, he prepares a full report (often thousands of pages) and waits to be called as a witness in the court case. His testimony can mean millions of dollars to crash victims or it can save careers and keep families fed.

Several months before he would ever hear of Owen, a middle-aged veteran truck driver was hauling a load of frozen vegetables from western Kansas to southern Illinois (some details have been changed to maintain confidentiality). He was first aware of the noise–a rapid scraping sound to his right–then he saw a small car driving into the side of his truck. In an instant, the car jetted out front and the trucker knew he would hit it.

He quickly released the clutch, slammed the brakes and swerved to the left. He felt the load behind him sway left and right and then all to the left. The load fell to the ground and, with a boom, his cab tipped over as well. After making sure no bones were broken, he climbed out the passenger side door and landed on the left shoulder. Then he saw it. A small car crushed under his load of frozen peas and carrots.

The police soon arrived. While the trucker told them about the driver who had cut him off, there was no evidence of such a car; no witness had seen it.

The next few months were horrible. The driver of the crashed car was all right, but his passenger was dead. The driver said he was just moving along when this huge truck swerved in front of him and tipped over. The trucker was not allowed to drive after that. He soon learned that the car’s driver and the estate of the passenger were suing him.

The truck driver’s attorney hired Owen to review the evidence. Owen flew to Kansas City to see the totaled car. He first saw what everyone else had seen: The entire front half was crushed. It was a miracle the driver had survived at all. Owen then noticed peculiar marks on the left side, a series of wavy scrapes in the sheet metal. He looked at his notes, then looked at the car again and laughed. Th trucker would be back on the road soon.

“For someone that’s worked a lot of accidents, it’s obvious,” he said. “But it was not obvious to everyone else who had looked at the case.”

These scrapes, the telltale signature of lug nuts from a semi’s tire, showed that the crushed car was also the mysterious car that had cut off the truck; the car driver had caused the crash. The lawsuit was dropped. The trucking company then sued the car’s driver and won several million dollars for damage to the truck and load. Most important, the veteran trucker was soon driving again.

Like many accident reconstructionists, Owen is a former police officer. He investigated thousands of accidents as a cop in Freeport, Ill., until he went private in 1991. Others are engineers, physicists, doctors, lawyers. Most reconstructionists earn their living as experts in court cases, making as much as several hundred dollars an hour.

Legally, anyone can use the title “accident reconstructionist”; there are no professional organizations or accrediting institutions. But, like any testifying expert, reconstructionists must convince a judge that they have more expertise than the average juror. There are reconstructionists in most major police departments, and auto manufacturers have entire departments of them helping to design safer cars.

It all started back in the mid-1930s when Franklin Kreml, an Evanston police lieutenant, noticed a sudden, dramatic rise in automobile-related deaths as cars became faster and more commonplace. Yet no one in the country was studying why accidents happen and how they might be prevented. In 1936, with Northwestern University, Kreml founded the Traffic Institute to do just that. Shortly before World War II, Kreml hired J. Stannard Baker, an engineer, to create a system for analyzing accidents. Until then, each investigating officer would come to his own intuitive conclusions.

“Baker brought the scientific method to looking at a crash,” said Noel Bufe, the current director of the Traffic Institute. “He was a methodical engineer and wanted to know exactly how two vehicles came together, the angles and speed of the collision, the state of the roadway, which driver contributed the most to the accident and what evidence could document that.”

For decades, the Traffic Institute was the only place in the country where police officers could learn this arcane science. By 1980, the courses were opened to civilians and other schools were opening.

While well-trained police officers, like Owen, understand how to review a car crash systematically to uncover its cause, there are cases that require expertise in engineering and biomechanics. One involved a truck driver who was found twisted up in a barbed-wire fence 15 feet from the shoulder of a road in rural south Texas.

The trucker’s box-shaped delivery truck was a quarter-mile away in the middle of a cow pasture. Hospital doctors found that his left shoulder and collarbone were broken. Even worse, a CT scan found that a middle vertebra was crushed and his spinal cord severed. This 43- year-old father of three would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.

The driver maintained that he had been driving on this narrow two-lane country road when he saw a large truck coming toward him straight on. He swerved quickly to the right and lost control. His truck passed the shoulder and bounced through a foot-deep dip and then kept going right through the barbed-wire fence. He said his broken bones resulted from his being violently pitched backward and forward inside the truck. When the truck came to a stop, the driver said, he unbuckled his seat belt and walked back toward the road to get help, but collapsed and fell into the barbed wire.

The driver’s attorney sued the county that maintains the road; the manufacturer of the seat belt; the maker of the seat; and the manufacturer of the driver’s truck, which called in Ruhl & Associates.

The case called for the special training of Owen’s boss, Roland “Rollie” Ruhl, an engineering PhD, and Mark Strauss, with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

Strauss flew to Texas and “re-created the exact profile of the roadway and the drainage ditch on the computer,” he said. “We created a virtual truck which we can place at any location and see its pitching and rolling motion.”

By studying the forces at every point of the truck’s wild journey, Strauss and Ruhl determined “that the amount of rocking back and forth would not have been severe enough to cause major injuries.”

Ruhl then rented a similar truck, found a roadside in Champaign that had almost identical dimensions to the accident site, and drove off the road just as the driver had described. Far from breaking his back, Ruhl simply endured a slightly bumpy ride.

Having proved the driver’s account wrong, Strauss wanted to explain how it all really happened. “It’s a puzzle and we’re trying to find as many of the pieces as possible and see how they fit together,” he said.

Sadly, the piece that solved the puzzle was the broken vertebra that caused the driver’s paralysis. The driver claimed that his back was broken when it slammed against the top edge of the seatback. Strauss knew that a backward slam would cause the square-shaped vertebra to be crushed into a backward-pointing triangle. Looking at the spinal X-rays the doctor provided, Strauss saw that the broken vertebra looked like a forward-pointing triangle. That sort of injury occurs when a person is bent forward and the top of his head or his neck slams into something hard.

Strauss could come to only one conclusion: The truck driver was not wearing his seat belt. When the truck hit the drainage ditch, he was thrown clear, slammed into the ground and tumbled toward the barbed-wire fence.

“It’s satisfying that I’m able to solve a problem, but it’s also sad,” Strauss said. “Many of these injuries can be avoided. If he had been wearing his seat belt, he wouldn’t be paralyzed.”

Armed with Strauss’ report, the defendants offered the injured trucker a settlement and avoided a trial. Strauss’ client said the report saved millions of dollars.

“These guys cost big-time,” said lawyer Nemoy. “It’s huge dough, $400 to $500 per hour. But on a case that’s going to bring in a lot of money, I don’t mind throwing in.”

Nemoy and several other attorneys said they are always careful when using reconstructionists.

“It’s like any kind of expert,” he said. “There are all sorts of crackpots.” Nevertheless, Nemoy said, most lawyers know who the good ones are.

“There are cases that come up and you don’t know anything,” he said. “This side says one thing and that side says the other. That’s when you get these guys. They can tell you how the thing happened. These guys can work magic. They can win a case.”

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