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Event data recorders and their use in personal injury litigation

In our previous post, we mentioned that federal investigators were working at pulling event data recorders from a commuter train that crashed in Hoboken on last Thursday. Two primary data elements investigators are looking for on the train's event data recorders are its speed and braking activity prior to the crash.

As we noted, event data recorders can potentially play a useful role not only in determining the details of a crash, but also in determining liability. There are certain limitations on the data, though. For one thing, the event data recorders do not always record the entirety of the crash, which can result in limited data retrieval. 

Another limitation with event data records is that they only provide information, not legal conclusions. In last Thursday's train crash, witnesses said they didn't hear or feel brakes being applied prior to the crash, and Governor Chris Christie has said that the train came in at too high a rate of speed. Even if the event data recorders end up corroborating this information, though, they will not be able to provide any definitive information about whether the train engineer was at fault. For that, a legal argument must be made based on all the available evidence. Even if the data points toward the fault of a driver or train operator in a crash, there may still be facts which prevent him or her from being held liable, or at least limit liability.

Getting black box data into the courtroom is not a given, either. First of all, federal law holds that the data belongs to vehicle owners. Unless consent is provided, law enforcement, researchers and auto manufacturers may not access the data unless they have the owner's consent or a court order. That being said, that are certain circumstances where a court order is not necessary to access the data, such as when it is necessary for an emergency response or highway safety research. The latter is presumably the case with the black boxes in the train that crashed in Hoboken. Some states do also allow insurance companies to access black box information for purposes of assessing fault.

We'll continue this discussion in our next post.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Event data recorders, May 2016, Accessed September 30, 2016.