Explosion of video evidence in injury and death cases
When I started practicing law in 1977, hardly anyone but TV stations had video cameras, which at the time were heavy, tripod-mounted and extremely expensive. The idea of being able to play a video recording of an event in court would have seemed like science fiction if anyone had been so fanciful as to suggest it.
But today investigation of any serious injury or wrongful death case involves a hunt for video recordings from a variety of sources. We hardly could not have imagined this in my early days as a prosecutor.
In 1983, the first consumer camcorders began to appear. They were big, shoulder-held devices that recorded on large VHS cassettes. We had one of those to make video of our children when they were small. By the 1990s, compact digital tape technology became the dominant format. Formats continued to evolve until now cheap, compact, solid state video recording devices are incorporated into ubiquitous smart phones. While I seldom use the video recording feature on my iPhone, I discovered in a pinch that I could video record an hour-long doctor’s deposition on my phone.
Now the checklist for investigation of every significant case includes the search for video recordings as well as still photos from a wide variety of sources. Some include:
- Police dashcam video. We routinely send an open records request for dashcam video from police vehicles. We recently concluded a case in which the Georgia State Patrol dashcam camera recorded a trooper’s questioning of a truck driver through an interpreter. On that video, he admitted that he had been on the phone and did not see the line of stopped vehicles before he ran over them, killing three people. Through phone records we determined that he was on the phone for 25 minutes with someone in South America. In another case, we have video of the defendant driver’s field sobriety test, resistance of arrest and refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test. That’s all golden.
- Police bodycam video. Good police officers love body cameras that corroborate what they report and save them from false accusations about their conduct. In one case, we obtained bodycam recordings of a truck driver who killed five people admitting before he “lawyered up” that, “I must have fell asleep.”
- Truck and bus cameras. A growing number of trucks and buses have Drivecam or similar video units recording what happens inside a truck cab or bus. Like a store security video camera, it can protect the company from allegations when the driver did nothing wrong. But the evidence can be impressive when it works for the victims of negligence. We have a case in the office now in which video inside a bus in another state clearly demonstrates a driver’s negligence.
- Inside security surveillance video. Video can make or break an injury claim. When a golf cart in an airport terminal mowed down a woman in the concourse, we immediately sent an open records request for surveillance video in the area where it happened. Two cameras caught from different angles the golf cart speeding through the concourse and crashing into our client without warning. That eliminated all potential defenses on liability, which surely would have been hard fought. On the other hand, when a potential client came to me with a story of how his leg was broken at a “big box” home improvement store, I contacted the chain’s general counsel and suggested that we look at the video together. I went to their office, sat down in the law department office and watched the video of the incident. It was obvious that my potential client’s story was, to put it mildly, inaccurate. It saved me a lot of time and trouble.
- Outside security cameras. Urban areas are increasingly blanketed with surveillance cameras. This was highlighted after the Boston Marathon bombing when the bombers were caught on numerous cameras. When we are hired early enough, we check out the surrounding area for cameras that might have inadvertently recorded anything of interest. Security cameras on stores, shopping centers, service stations, banks, ATM machines, etc. are of potential interest. In one of our cases, a security camera on a nearby store recorded not the crash itself but the last moments leading up to it.
- Public safety surveillance cameras. A higher level of video surveillance is operated by city governments and even the Department of Homeland Security. When a serious accident happens in a critical area of a city or in the national transportation infrastructure, we send an Open Records Act (state) or Freedom of Information Act (federal) for production of video recorded in the minutes surrounding the incident.People often ask if we can retrieve video from DOT traffic monitoring cameras, but they consistently deny that any recordings are retained. Usually we don’t get anything useful from any of the public surveillance systems, but when we do it can be really good stuff.
- Camera phones. Years ago, we would check with firemen who might have carried disposable cameras in their pockets when responding to major crashes. That led to discovery of some extremely dramatic scene photography. Now, in an era when virtually anyone at the scene is likely to have a cell phone that includes both still and video camera capabilities, investigation can include a broad search for individuals who may have recorded clips for themselves. That is a difficult search.
The downside of all this is that jurors may expect to see video in every case, much as TV shows like CSI lead some to expect DNA evidence in every case. Sometimes it is there, sometimes not. But jurors should understand the absence of particular forms of evidence does not preclude finding proof by a preponderance of evidence.
Ken Shigley is an Atlanta trial attorney focused on serious personal injury and wrongful death cases. He is currently chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Previously he served as president of the State Bar of Georgia and chair of the board of trustees of theInstitute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.