Black boxes are onboard information recorders that are capable of capturing operational data through a truck’s electronic network. A black box has the ability to record data from an accident that can lead to a wealth of information as to how the truck accident occurred, such as the condition of the truck after the impact. We have had many truck accident cases where the only source of the key evidence that won the case for us was in the black box.
This information is typically recorded in the event of a hard brake application by the truck’s driver. Additionally, some trucks are now equipped with GPS tracking systems that monitor the speed and position of the truck as it travels its route. This GPS data, like the ECM (engine control module) data, can show the speed of the truck and give information as to the braking of the truck before and after an impact. In other words, this information can show what the truck driver did to try to avoid an accident.
What Information Does a Black Box Give?
But that is not all. A black box can provide:
- Trip distance and driving time (checking for fatigue)
- Average driving speed
- Tire air pressure
- Engine oil pressure
- Load factor
- Current throttle position (%)
- Brake switch status
- High speed on the vehicle on the trip
- Cylinder exhaust temperature
- Exhaust stack temperature
- Inlet air temperature
Are most of these things relevant in a truck accident? No. But in a specific case, any one of these can be the key that makes or breaks the claim.
How Do Our Accident Reconstructionists Use Black Box Data
Black box data, or event data recorders (EDRs), are essential tools for accident reconstructionists to determine the causes of vehicle accidents. They gather a range of data recorded before, during, and after a crash, offering vital insights into the incident. The process involves:
- Data Retrieval: This involves extracting black box data from the vehicle’s electronic control module (ECM) or airbag control module (ACM) using specialized software.
- Data Analysis: The data, encompassing various aspects like vehicle speed, braking and acceleration patterns, engine performance, airbag deployment, and seatbelt usage, is thoroughly analyzed. This helps in assessing factors such as speed, driver behavior, mechanical issues, impact severity, and occupant safety during the crash.
- Correlation with Physical Evidence: The data is then matched with physical evidence from the crash site, like skid marks and vehicle damage, to construct a detailed picture of the accident.
- Identifying Causal Factors: By combining analyzed data and physical evidence, reconstructionists pinpoint potential causes of the accident, which could range from driver error and mechanical failures to adverse road conditions.
- Supporting Accident Reports: The findings from black box analysis are integrated into comprehensive accident reports. These reports serve as objective evidence for insurance claims, legal cases, and safety studies.
There Is a Short Leash on Getting Black Box Data
Because the black box’s data storage ability is rather limited, the old data usually rewrites over the new data in a loop. Some trucks have loops as short as 10 minutes. On these trucks, if an accident does not occur, the old data is erased and replaced with new data. So data should be extracted from the ECM as soon as possible after the crash to preserve the evidence.
Do our lawyers know how to download this data? No. But we work with truck accident reconstruction experts who do this for us on a regular basis.
Rules That Allow Access to Black Box Data
Maryland Rule 2-422 and Federal Rule 34(a) allow the Plaintiff’s attorney to perform an inspection of the truck and to observe the download of and extraction of the data from the black box, and obtain copies of documents.
Plaintiffs’ counsel needs to make sure after the accident that anyone who has custody of the truck does not move or try to repair the truck, remove the truck’s black box, or retrieve or attempt to retrieve the information on the box. Instead, the parties should either agree (or you should seek a temporary restraining order from the court) to a joint inspection of the vehicle so that the black box data can be recovered with all parties of interest present.
While it is generally accepted that the vehicle owner owns the data, the truck company cannot knowingly destroy data it believes is relevant to a civil lawsuit in Maryland. If they do, you have some powerful arguments with the judge to receive a favorable jury instruction. If you are in this position, you might want to read the following cases:
- Shamrock-Shamrock, Inc. v. Remark: In Florida, nonparties to a legal claim are not required to preserve evidence simply because they foresee or know about potential litigation. The court emphasized that Florida law does not impose a preservation duty on nonparties based on their anticipation or awareness of a lawsuit. Furthermore, the court noted in this 2019 case that while Florida does not allow a separate lawsuit for evidence spoliation when the party accused of destroying evidence is also the defendant in the main case, there is a provision for an independent lawsuit against nonparties if they lose, misplace, or destroy crucial evidence.
- Christoffersen v. Malhi: This Arizona case in 2017 stands for the proposition that it does not matter whether the trucking company destroys the records or not. A spoliation instruction is warranted if the company should have known of the possibility of litigation.
- Daniels v. United States Georgia federal court in 2015 underscores the need to preserve evidence if you do not have possession of the vehicle.
- White v. Rasner: Wisconsin court in 2015 affirms $5,000 sanction and spoliation instruction, finding that trucking companies have a responsibility to preserve evidence that might provide evidence in an accident case).
Thoughts for Plaintiffs’ Lawyers
Anyone handling a truck crash should also know that some commercial insurance policies contain language that gives the insurance company the right to retrieve the black box data.
If the vehicle has been destroyed or the black box data has been erased after the wreck, you should still request the information because either the company or the insurance company may have preserved the data after the accident. If you do not ask for the information, the trucking company and their insurance company have no obligation to provide it.
Another good thing for plaintiffs’ lawyers to remember is that we are not just talking about black boxes to record key data today. Some cars have their own data collection devices that record the status of the vehicle systems, such as airbag deployment and other important data coming from the vehicle (like GM’s OnStar). Cell phone apps now track data. Fitbit and other fitness trackers might also provide key information to your case. You need every weapon you can to put your case in the best position to win.
Settlements and Verdicts in Black Box Truck Accident Cases
Below are settlements and verdicts from truck accident cases in which black box data was used as evidence.
$3,000,000 Settlement (Florida 2021): In Florida, a rear-end collision involving a former U.S. Postal Service carrier resulted in severe injuries, including a broken spine and a mild traumatic brain injury. The incident occurred when her mail truck, stopped for delivery, was struck by a speeding pickup truck, causing her vehicle to flip. In the lawsuit that followed, the plaintiff’s attorney focused on proving negligence by the construction company and the driver. Key evidence included GPS data demonstrating the driver’s pattern of speeding and allegations that the company destroyed data from the crash vehicle’s black box. These factors contributed to the settlement of the case for $3 million, aimed at covering the carrier’s extensive medical expenses and adapting to her life-changing injuries.
$1,000,000 Settlement (South Carolina 2020): A woman was fatally injured when their car, stopped abruptly at a highway exit in Greenville, was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Initially, witnesses, including the truck driver and his co-worker, blamed the daughter for the accident, alleging she cut in front of the truck. However, black box data from the tractor-trailer later revealed that the daughter had not cut in front of the truck, and the accident could have been avoided if the truck driver had maintained a safe distance. As a result, the daughter confidentially settled the lawsuit for $1 million against the truck driver and his employer.
$19,750,000 Settlement (Connecicut 2019): A 38-year-old woman died after her car was hit by a 23,000-pound truck. Crucial to the case was black box data from the truck, which proved that the truck driver was traveling at 35 mph in a 25 mph zone and had run a red light. The lawsuit was in its final stages of jury deliberation at Stamford Superior Court when the parties agreed to settle for $19.75 million. The settlement will benefit the woman’s 4-year-old son who lost his mom when he reaches 18.