The following is adapted from Unthinkable.
If you or a loved one is the victim of a catastrophic incident, then there’s one very important fact you need to understand: leaving the investigation to the police is a gamble. I don’t say this to disparage police departments. However, I do say it with the awareness I’ve gained by being a personal injury lawyer for over 25 years, and after losing my own mother in a terrible, tragic incident.
There are so many reasons that a police investigation could grind to a halt. When this happens, it just increases the anguish of the people involved. To avoid this all-too-common situation, be proactive. Get your own experts on the ground, and work with them to get to the bottom of what happened. Trust me—as traumatic as it is, it’s far worse not knowing what really happened.
Not sure where to start? There are a multitude of experts outside police departments in an array of fields related to accident investigation, among them the instructors who train the police. These experts can be hired directly by a victim or surviving family members to conduct an independent private investigation.
They may be most easily and economically located through a lawyer. However, they’re accessible to anyone and can be located easily through a Google search.
Professional engineers are experts with academic education in a variety of specialties that, in many cases, goes far beyond the qualifications of people working within a police department. Some of them have both an undergraduate degree and a PhD in mechanical engineering.
Others have doctorates in assessing human decision-making: what someone might have seen, what their reaction time might have been, and other ways of understanding an accident from the human perspective. There are also traffic engineers who spend their careers studying traffic light location and sequencing and the coordination of pedestrian walk signs and traffic lights.
Others specialize in regulations related to commercial driver safety; still others might have a particular expertise in tractor-trailer safety or delivery trucks. There are even independent experts who specialize in downloading and interpreting black box data in vehicles.
You can locate an accident reconstruction engineering firm by an online search for “Accident Reconstruction Engineer” along with the name of the city nearest to the crash. Call one of the firms and tell them that a loved one has been involved in a serious accident and that you are looking to consult with someone who can begin securing evidence from an independent perspective and work as a second set of eyes with the police department.
Professional engineers work by the hour, and they’re not cheap. Rather than paying for a full accident reconstruction from the onset, many times a good start is simply asking the firm what the estimated price would be to have them go to the crash location and secure the digital and physical evidence now that they will need to complete a full reconstruction should that prove necessary later.
Less expensive than but equally important to hiring a forensic engineer is retaining a private investigator. Many will indicate on their websites if they work in accident investigation.
The first and most important service you’ll want them to provide is securing all video evidence from gas stations, residences, and other nearby cameras. They should also identify and interview witnesses.
They won’t bring anything like the expertise of an engineer to the work; they can’t conduct a digital scan, and they may overlook evidence that would catch an engineer’s eye. But they may be able to go beyond what the police were able to do.
The police don’t look at systemic issues, such as a commercial driver’s working conditions or how many other crashes the driver or company may have had in the past, because that is outside their role. However, those things can be highly relevant to understanding what’s happened and holding the responsible party accountable. Private investigator rates typically range from $40 to $120 an hour, and you can get a lot done for $500.
Personal Injury Lawyers
I’m not here to make a sales pitch for personal injury lawyers, but an important option for the family is to work with a well-qualified law firm with a wealth of experience in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases.
Lawyers who specialize in personal injury cases will begin with questions about who’s at fault and whether there’s insurance. If fault seems relatively clear and it appears there’s insurance, most of these lawyers will take a case on what’s called a contingency fee basis—a percentage of whatever settlement or award the family eventually wins.
That means the family doesn’t need to come up with money to pay the lawyers by the hour. Plus, a well-qualified personal injury law firm will front the cost for hiring the experts to secure the information necessary to reconstruct what happened.
Lawyers also have relationships with engineers and private investigators whose work they trust and the ability to get them on the scene and working on the family’s behalf as soon as possible. Typically, that is within 24 to 48 hours. If it’s a credible firm and they later conclude there’s no case to pursue, you won’t be required to pay them back for the costs they’ve incurred.
While the first phase in the aftermath of an accidental death or catastrophic injury is a police investigation, that’s no guarantee that they’ll find enough evidence to hold the relevant party responsible. Sometimes, the police investigation concludes at the scene within hours. Sometimes, it unfolds over the days and weeks that follow.
No matter what the case, if you take one thing away from this discussion of hiring your own investigative experts, I hope it’s this: get your own experts on the ground. If you’ve been victimized by tragedy, taking steps to protect yourself and your family from being re-victimized by the investigation represents an early and potentially very important means of asserting at least some control over the unthinkable.
For more advice on steps to take if you or someone you love is the victim of a tragic incident, you can find Unthinkable on Amazon.
A founding partner of the law firm Bachus Schanker, Kyle Bachus limits his practice to representing individuals and families in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases nationwide. For more information, visit KyleBachus.com.