"Black Box" Technology and Its Use in Illinois Civil Litigation

Posted By Power Rogers & Smith, P.C. || Feb 24, 2012

Most of us have heard of the “black box” that exists in airplanes, but few of us realize that most vehicles on the road today are equipped with these same devices. Indeed, since the early 1990s, automobile manufacturers, including General Motors and Ford, began installing black boxes or “event data recorders” (EDRs) into their vehicles.

airplane black box

EDR is capable of recording various actions taken by the driver during the car’s operation. Unlike the black box in airplanes, which records audio and technical information throughout the duration of the flight, a car’s EDR will only record a certain amount of data preceding an event, such as a crash. For that reason, in order to use the EDR data as evidence, it must be timely preserved. If a vehicle is operated after being involved in a crash, the EDR data could be overwritten and erased.

Black box technology in the news:

Black Box data was recently used to determine the cause of the car crash involving Massachusetts Lt. Governor Tim Murray. Murray’s car rolled over after accelerating without breaking or turning, crashing into a rock ledge off Interstate 190 in Sterling, MA on November 2, 2011. In their investigation of the collision, the Massachusetts State Police obtained EDR data from the vehicle Lt. Governor Murray was operating, which revealed that at the time of the collision, Murry was speeding (approximately 100 mph), was not wearing a seatbelt, and was potentially asleep behind the wheel at the time of the collision. Murray admitted, after the data was released, that the results were accurate.

Similarly, in April of 2007, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was seriously injured in a crash on the Garden State Parkway. Initial reports indicated that the Governor’s SUV was traveling at a speed of more than 70 mph at the time of the crash. After reviewing the “black box” data from the involved vehicle, however, it indicated that in fact the Governor’s vehicle was traveling at 91 mph at the time of the collision and that the governor was not wearing his seat belt.

Using black box technology and EDR data as evidence:

Federal regulations exist regarding what types of information – speed, seatbelt status, service brake and air bag deployment, for example – will be recorded and how that data will be stored in a car; however, Federal law allows each jurisdiction to decide whether and how the data collected by EDR can be used in criminal and civil proceedings. Most states permit the introduction of EDR evidence in both civil and criminal proceedings. See, e.g., Bachman v. General Motors, 332 Ill. App. 3d 760 (4th Dist. 2002) (reasoning that the process of gathering and recording data through EDRs is not new or novel and holding that the design and implementation of an EDR device adheres to the Frye standard); Matos v. State, 899 So. 2d 403 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005) (finding that EDR data is generally accepted in relevant scientific fields, and there is no basis to exclude it where the process of recording or downloading such data is not new or novel because it has been used in the automobile industry for over 10 years);Brill-Edwards v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., No. Civ. 3:01CV915 (PCD), Civ. 3:01CV1768, 2003 WL 23511733, *1 (D. Conn. Jan. 24, 2003) (exempting EDR from the Frye and Daubert tests because the “raw data” does not require expert opinion or interpretation).

Under Illinois law, EDR may be introduced in both civil and criminal proceedings. In many instances, evidence of EDR can be used to corroborate your theory of the case. Even if the evidence is contrary to your original theory, reviewing it early on in the case allows you to develop a more accurate, alternative theory. If you plan to hire an accident reconstruction expert, he/she will definitely want to review the EDR data to aid in the reconstruction.

In a recent case handled by Larry R. Rogers, Jr. of Power Rogers & Smith, L.L.P., a young woman was killed as a result of her automobile being broadsided or “t-boned” by an ambulance. In that case, Mr. Rogers was able to extract EDR data from the decedent’s 2005 Chevy Malibu to determine the speed, time the brakes were applied and when the airbags deployed. The speed and braking data, in particular, corroborated eyewitness testimony regarding the decedent’s speed at the time of the occurrence and was used by the accident reconstruction expert to corroborate reaction times. Because the dispute also concerned who had the green light, the EDR data was also helpful to the expert with regard to his testimony on how humans react when they are surprised, such as when a vehicle runs a traffic light and strikes their vehicle.

Mr. Rogers was asked to speak on the topic of “black box discovery” at the upcoming 2012 American Association for Justice Convention in Chicago.

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