By Nick Ellis
Under the Gun, a gun violence documentary created by Katie Couric and others d/b/a Epix Entertainment, LLC, not only gave viewers a look at gun violence in America, it also spawned a lawsuit providing both the media and interview subjects nuts and bolts information on defamation in the legal system. The United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on December 13, 2018 affirmed the dismissal of a defamation claim against Couric and her colleagues at Epix after analyzing interview and film editing tactics to determine whether the subjects of the interview had been defamed.
In 2016, Couric and filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig released a documentary titled Under the Gun. The film addressed gun violence in America and more particularly, issues relating to regulatory steps that could be taken to effect gun control. The film’s perspective favored regulation of gun ownership.
One of the issues the film addressed was the application of universal background checks to gun ownership. In efforts to present both sides of this issue, the filmmakers contacted the Virginia Citizens Defense League (“VCDL”), a non-profit gun-rights organization, and interviewed several of its members. VCDL was founded in 1994 and according to its website, is a “grass roots organization dedicated to advancing the fundamental human right of all Virginians to keep and bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution…” VCDL often tracks similar political position as the NRA. Couric interviewed nine members of VCDL including Daniel Hawes, an attorney and Patricia Webb a gun-store owner.
The film includes a portion of Couric’s interview with the VCDL members and the segment lasts approximately three minutes. Couric asks the members several questions regarding gun policies and there are no legally problematic issues created by the main portion of the interview. However, Couric and her team included a 12-second clip at the close of the 3-minute VCDL interview that was edited in such a way as to inaccurately project the members’ responses.
The final question Couric posed was “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” Approximately nine seconds of silence follows the question, which show the VCDL members sitting in silence and shifting uncomfortably in their seats, while averting their eyes from the camera. Couric is then heard stating “The background check is considered the first line of defense, and 90% of Americans agree it’s a good thing.” There is no other reference to the VCDL or its members in the 105-minute film.
The problem with this 12-second clip is that it did not transpire as depicted. In actuality, when Couric asked the question about background checks for gun ownership, the VCDL members responded for approximately six minutes. Hawes, the attorney, suggested the government cannot, through a prior restraint that violates the United States Constitution, try to prevent crime. Webb, the gun-store owner, responded that background checks were unlikely to prevent motivated criminals from obtaining guns or committing crimes. These two responses took up approximately three minutes and then there was an additional three minutes of related discussion between Couric and the panel. But, Couric’s team did not show any of these responses. Instead, they spliced in footage taken prior to the interview in which she asked the interviewees to sit silently while technicians calibrated the recording equipment.
After the film was released, the VCDL released an unedited audio of the interview, which caused public backlash. Couric then issued a statement taking responsibility for the misrepresented exchange. She acknowledged the insertion of the extended pause made the participants appear to be speechless. Her statement further acknowledged the VCDL members had a right to have their answers be shared, so she posted their responses in full on the film’s website. Couric acknowledged the eight seconds did not accurately represent the members’ response and that this was misleading. To a lay person, this may appear to be exactly what defamation looks like. Legally, it has turned out to be another story.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals stated a defamation claim under Virginia law (the site of the interview) required a plaintiff to prove the defendant (1) published, (2) an actionable statement, (3) with a requisite intent. The court found Couric and Epix had published the film with the requisite intent, but that it had to grapple with whether this was an “actionable” statement. Under Virginia law, to be actionable, the statement must be “both false and defamatory.” There does not appear to be any question that the “clip of silence” was false, but was it “defamatory”. This turned out to be the court’s focus.
The court stated that defamatory words are those, which tend to harm the reputation of another such that the estimation of him by the community or others is lowered and that they are deterred “from associating or dealing with him.”  Virginia law requires a court to initially decide whether a statement is reasonably capable of defamatory meaning before allowing the case to be presented to a jury. Further, Virginia law requires that inferences from the pleadings must be resolved in the plaintiff’s favor when deciding if the communication is reasonably capable defaming the plaintiffs by innuendo. 
The VCDL, Hawes and Webb contended the film was defamatory per se (meaning they did not have to show other evidence that the silent clip damaged their reputation). The precise argument Plaintiffs made was the film was defamatory per se because it was reasonably understood to suggest they were unfit as a gun-rights group, an attorney and as a gun-shop owner. To establish defamation per se legally, there must be some connection between the content of the statement and the skills or character required by the plaintiff to carry out his or her particular occupation.
The court first applied this legal principle to Hawes, the attorney. His practice focused on firearms and self-defense and he argued the film suggested he lacked the required competency and ability to represent clients in such cases. However, the court concluded the background check question had nothing to do with Hawes’ legal practice or expertise. The three-judge panel concluded accepting eight-seconds of silence constituted defamation per se would require it to hold that such silence unequivocally suggested “professional ineptitude.” The court was not willing to go that far.
Likewise, the court denied gun-shop owner Webb’s claim because it did not find that the inserted clip suggested she lacked sufficient knowledge regarding integral aspects of purchasing firearms or operating such a business. The judges concluded Webb’s ownership of a gun store did not require her to have “nuanced views on gun policy.”  The VCDL was also found not to be defamed because, while the interview was of its members, they were not identified as leaders of the VCDL and therefore, inserting the silent clip could not be construed to question the overall ability of the VCDL to serve its stated purpose. The court does make a contradictory statement by claiming that the silence in response to Couric’s question did not suggest the VCDL or its members did not have responses to the question because the film did show other questions concerning background checks. Then, the court goes on to say that “To be sure, the film gives the impression that Couric’s final question stumped the panelists.” So, its seems that on one hand, the court acknowledges the editing suggested the plaintiffs had no answer to Couric’s question but also tries to say that this was “no harm, no foul” because other responses to similar questions had been presented.
Procedurally, the courts may not have seen the last of this case as it is almost certain the plaintiffs will seek to have the Supreme Court of the United States review this decision.
So, what are the takeaways for the media? What are the takeaways for persons being interviewed by the media? It seems to me, that one of the distinguishing features of this case is that one of the VCDL members interviewed was an attorney and the other a gun-store owner. The attorney represented individuals involved in gun-rights cases and also defendants facing criminal charges who were asserting self-defense to those charges. Webb owned a business that sold firearms and surely has some duty to lawfully sell those firearms. While the court ultimately concluded the edit did not challenge their competency to serve as an attorney or own a gun shop, one would have to admit it is a close call and Couric and her team could have faced a jury who would have decided if inserting the clip in lieu of their actual answers was defamatory. In my opinion, the questionable manner in which the clip was inserted would have likely been a factor a jury would consider in determining if the plaintiffs were defamed. Members of the media, therefore, should know the occupation of their subjects and other relevant information pertaining to how members of the community may identify them. The closer the interview topic is to the person’s profession, the less latitude you likely have in editing the answer to a question.
If you are the subject of an interview, I think it would be wise to insist that any response you give to a question be shown without any editing and, if possible, in its entirety. This means that interview subjects should try to speak in sound bites rather than give protracted responses which the local news or a filmmaker may simply not have ample time to fully present. If you think you are potentially being “set up” by the interviewer, it may even be a good idea to inject in your response to a question about what your occupation is or what specific knowledge you may have about the subject. Leave no doubt that you are qualified to talk about the subject. This would possibly allow you to clearly create a nexus between your profession/occupation and the Q : A in case there are edits made that alter the accuracy of the response.
While fictional filmmakers certainly have artistic license, it may not be too much expect documentary filmmakers or the news media to waive that license and accurately, without intentional alterations being made, present responses from an interview subject. It may be naïve to suggest this, but the public wants information presented in a fair and accurate manner where it can draw its own conclusions about that information.
Written by James C. Smolka, P.E., CFEI, CESCP, ESi
As you read this article, you probably have a power strip under your desk that powers your laptop, your monitor, your cell phone charger, etc. Power strips, which are officially known as relocatable power taps (RPTs), are designed to be used as a multiple outlet extension in the office and in the home. Many RPTs are listed by Underwriter Laboratories Inc. (UL) meeting the requirements of Standard UL 1363. Some RPTs have limited electrical surge protection and electrical noise filtering for sensitive electronic equipment.
When used as designed, RPTs are useful, reliable devices. However, they have been involved in many fires. Often the fires attributed to RPTs are related to the misuse of the RPT. The picture below shows an example of the misuse of an RPT.
Relocatable power taps were designed for use in an area with a high concentration of low-powered loads such as computers, paraphernalia, and audio/ video equipment. RPTs are not intended for use with high load equipment such as refrigerators, coffee pots, copiers, space heaters, microwave ovens, toaster, toaster ovens, hair dryers, and dehumidifiers. Basically, if the electrical device has a large motor or a large heater, then it was not meant to be plugged into an RPT.
According to UL, RPTs are also known as temporary wire taps and are considered temporary extension of an electrical circuit intended for indoor use. The term temporary also refers to how an RPT is physically mounted. The mounting and removal of a RPT is permitted if tools are not used to secure it in place (i.e., a RPT cannot be secured to a work bench, desk, or a wall by bolting or screwing the RPT to a surface.).
RPTs are great for low power devices. However, there are some do’s and don’ts. According to the NFPA 1, Fire Code, and the UL White Book, RPTs:
The question for legal minds is, is it illegal to misuse an RPT in the work place? In short, yes. There are ways that the misuse of RPTs can be considered illegal.
The first way that the misuse of an RPT causes a legal issue through violation of the OSHA regulations. The installation and use of electrical equipment, OSHA regulation (29 CFR 1910.303(b)(2) states:
“Listed or labeled equipment shall be installed and used in accordance with any instructions included in the listing or labeling.”
Since RPTs are listed devices, the misuse of a RPT in the work place is an OSHA type violation.
The second way that the misuse of an RPT causes a legal issue is NFPA 70, National Electric Code (NEC), Article 110.3(B), which states:
Since most states have adopted the NEC and have made the NEC a legally enforceable standard, not following the NEC results in a non-compliance of a recognized standard.
Note that the OSHA regulations and the NEC use the same language regarding the use and installation of listed devices. The OSHA regulations tell you what you must do, standards, like the ones from the NFPA, tell you how to meet the OSHA regulations.
RPTs are used in almost all office environments. So, take a moment and look around your office. Are your RPTs in good condition? Are your RPTs used as designed? For safety reasons, the proper use of RPTs is not only recommended, it is an OSHA requirement.
By Warren Savage, Lawyers Mutual
As I rock on my porch muttering while watching you kids in my front yard, I remember my dewy days as a green lawyer trying my first few auto accident trials. Being fortunate to start as an associate in the warm embrace of Bailey & Dixon in the ‘90’s, I was given my own small auto accident cases to prepare and try along with tons of go-bys, outlines, checklists, briefs, forms, and trial notebooks that the firm had developed through decades of trial practice. The partners and senior associates freely shared their time and wisdom and assured me that if I put in the hours and followed their advice I would be as well-prepared as possible for my first trials. Over the next two years, I tried six or seven jury trials and learned that all that firm support and resources had only helped me to get to the courthouse door. Once inside, I learned that each civil jury trial is a living breathing organism with a mind of its own having tentacles, rabbits, and red herrings. Here are ten things I experienced during those early days of trial practice that have seared themselves in my brain for better or worse. May these stories and observations provide you with guidance and amusement.
1) Jury selection is what the trial judge says it is.
With loads of questions I had prepared to ask in jury voir dire, I appeared at calendar call one Monday morning in Johnston County with the second case on the calendar that week. The visiting judge told all the attorneys with trials scheduled that he planned to try three or four cases and we should be ready at a moment’s notice to start our cases when the TCA called. Late Monday afternoon, the call came in that my case would start the first thing Tuesday morning. When I arrived the trial judge was in the middle of the charge conference with the attorneys in the trial that had started the previous day. The judge informed us all that, while he finished up with the first trial, the plaintiff’s attorney and I should go in the adjoining courtroom and “work together” to pick a jury for our trial that would start immediately after closing arguments in the first trial while that jury was deliberating. There would be no judge to rule on challenges for cause or objections during our voir dire, so the plaintiff’s attorney and I agreed that if any potential jurors said that they did not want to serve for whatever reason, we would let them go. All other challenges would count towards our allotted eight peremptory challenges. When the panel was passed to me, I asked whether any of the jurors knew the local plaintiff’s attorney or her partner. Six people raised their hands saying they or a family member had been represented by the local firm in past personal injury cases, and all six were willing to serve as jurors. Without the ability to challenge any of them for cause, I was forced to burn six peremptory challenges on my very first question.
2) Video depositions can be mind-numbingly dull at trial.
In my very first trial, the plaintiff was a teenager who claimed to have been injured in a low impact auto accident resulting in excruciating chronic headaches and neck pain. Having obtained the plaintiff’s school nursing records in discovery, they showed that the plaintiff had regularly visited his school nurse’s office once or twice a week for the two years prior to the auto accident complaining of the same headaches he sought compensation for in my case. Armed for bear, I went into the video trial deposition of the plaintiff’s treating physician and meticulously walked him through each of the nurse’s notes. Ultimately the doctor would not back off of his causation opinion, but did admit that it would be very hard to differentiate the plaintiff’s prior headaches from his headaches after the accident. I confirmed that my questions and the doctor’s answers were accurately recorded in the deposition transcript and then watched as the video was played for the jury at trial. As the recording played, I had the horrible realization that most of my questions were halting, monotone, and meandering. The jurors were either asleep or openly hostile to me and the videotape as I just kept asking the same question over and over about the school nurse’s notes. The only thing that rescued me was the plaintiff attorney’s thirty minute re-direct at the end of which the juror’s disgust was audible in groans and snores.
3) You can’t script everything.
While I mostly defended cases as insurance defense counsel, I occasionally had the pleasure of representing a plaintiff in defending a counterclaim asserted by a defendant. In one early trial in Harnett County District Court, I acted as co-counsel with the plaintiff’s personal injury attorney in a case with disputed liability. The accident report prepared by the investigating officer had originally attributed fault to the defendant driver. However, at the insistence of the defendant, the officer revisited the scene two days later and then supplemented his accident report to state that the accident was the plaintiff’s fault. The only witness to the accident was an adult passenger in my client’s car who we had subpoenaed to appear at the trial to testify for the plaintiff. With trial proceeding more briskly than my co-counsel and I had anticipated, we realized that it was 4 pm and our final witness, the subpoenaed passenger, was not in the courtroom. I was terrified that the trial judge was going to force us to close the plaintiff’s case without the passenger’s testimony, and then start the defendant’s case with her first witness, the investigating officer who had faulted our client in the accident report. Instead, my fearless co-counsel took the bull by the horns and called the investigating officer in our case knowing that the officer’s testimony would not be helpful to our client. With deft bobbing and weaving, she questioned the officer through the rest of the day in order to stall until the next morning when we escorted the passenger into the courtroom to get his critical testimony about the accident. My co-counsel’s improvisation on the fly saved the day and won our client the case.
4) Jurors notice the tiny things.
Juries want to do good things for good people. Towards that end, jurors are constantly looking for clues to the character of the parties and the attorneys during trial. In one of my early defense cases where liability was admitted, the plaintiff testified at length about his injuries including a brief description of how hard it was to give his son piggy back rides after the accident. Thinking nothing of that testimony, I struggled to cross examine the plaintiff about the holes and inconsistencies in his medical records in an effort to convey to the jury that the plaintiff was a malingerer. After only five minutes of deliberations, the jury came back with a verdict of “no injury.” I was flabbergasted and questioned several jurors in the parking lot afterwards about how they reached such a conclusive verdict in such a short time. The jurors said that they noticed that the plaintiff’s son was 15 years old. Either the plaintiff was lying about the piggy back rides, or he had injured himself by giving piggy back rides to a 150 pound teenage boy.
5) How you interact with your client in front of the jury matters.
Jurors don’t just notice the tiny things in testimony, they also look for signals in your body language. If you appear not to like your client, the jury is likely to do the same. Jury voir dire is the first time that most jurors will see you and your client together, and the jury will notice if you never confer with your client or treat him as part of the trial team. During breaks in trial at the courthouse, jurors will notice if you ignore your client or leave them to fend for themselves while disappearing back to your office or a conference room. In lunch restaurants near the courthouse, jurors might draw negative inferences if they notice you eating at a table by yourself while your client eats separately. Show genuine interest in your client as a person and value his input during trial, and hopefully jurors will follow your example.
6) Jurors will get bored and uncomfortable during a long trial.
If you are in a long trial, jurors will hold it against the lawyers if they think their time is being wasted by legal machinations they don’t understand. Objections, sidebars, and motions heard outside the presence of the jury will inevitably accumulate over the course of the long trial giving the appearance to jurors that they are being taken for granted or otherwise ignored. Judges often recognize and sympathize with the jury’s peevishness and will become short and even hostile to one or both of the attorneys in front of the jury. Similarly, long periods without water or bathroom breaks will drive a juror to distraction and resentment. If you need to pee, it is very likely that one or more of the jurors needs to also. Be a hero, and ask the judge for a break that everyone could use.
7) Dress conservatively and nicely at trial.
Save you sartorial expression for other occasions. Your goal is to be just another suit until you earn the gravitas to be different. Bored jurors who don’t know you from Adam, will scrutinize your clothes seeking any insight into what you are like as a person. Rumpled suits or loafers with no socks send a message that you may be ill-prepared or loosey-goosey with the facts. You may wear bow ties and seersucker suits to bar functions, but as a new lawyer I would not wear a bow tie to court for a year or two or three. Some (but not all) experienced trial lawyers can carry it off, but probably not you – at least for a while.
8) Instruct your client, your trial team, and everyone in your “audience” how to act during trial.
In several of my early trials, I was helped immeasurably by the inappropriate or negative reactions of people on the other “side” when something they did not like went the wrong way in the courtroom. During one trial, the plaintiff demonstrably shook her head every time I or one of the witnesses said something she did not like. In another trial, rude gestures made by audience members there to support the plaintiff resulted in an exasperated admonition from the bench to the plaintiff’s attorney to control “his clients.” Juror interviews following both of those trials revealed that the jurors had noticed the bad behavior and had taken offense to the disrespect it showed to my client and the court. While none of the interviewed jurors admitted that it influenced the verdict, they all conceded that it was discussed among the jurors during breaks in the trial and at deliberations.
9) Get to know and appreciate the courthouse personnel.
The TCA, clerk of court, assistant clerks, bailiffs, court reporter and other courthouse personnel are invaluable resources for you as you learn to navigate the specialized world of courthouse/courtroom practice. No one knows more about the inner workings of the courthouse and the predilections of your judges and jury pool (and often the opposing attorney) than the clerks and bailiffs. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be so impressed with your new status as a lawyer that you refuse to access the years of experience that courthouse personnel have to offer you.
10) Just because you won a case doesn’t mean you are a good trial attorney (and just because you lost doesn’t mean you stink).
Whenever I hear a lawyer crow about winning all his or her cases, my first thought is always, “You must not try any hard cases.” You will win and lose case for all kinds of reasons out of your control. For example, when interviewing jurors after one of my “wins,” I found out that none of them remembered much about my closing arguments or trial skills. Instead, jurors believed the plaintiff was a liar after seeing her wear stiletto heels to court for three days while complaining about her lower back pain, a fact that I had not even noticed. Similarly, some of the best lawyers I know have taken tough cases to trial and gotten hammered by a jury. They weren’t worse lawyers after the verdict. In fact in elite circles of trial attorneys, such battle scars mean as much or more than the victories. Trial skills, preparation, and charisma are important in the courtroom, but do not guarantee wins for your client.
By Melissa Walker, Asst. Attorney General, NC Department of Justice
I carefully plan my work day in hopes of not having to be alone in the office after hours or when most people aren’t working. I call my spouse/parent/roommate before I leave my building and walk to the parking deck so someone knows where I am and what I am doing. I walk to the car with my keys out and ready so I don’t have to spend time looking for them and not paying attention to my surroundings. Usually, I have the metal piece of the key between my first two fingers so I can use it as a weapon if I were attacked. Before I get in my car, I look in the back seat to make sure no one is in my car.
I don’t schedule repair people to come to the house when I am home alone. I don’t answer the door when I am home alone. I don’t tell callers I am home alone.
I don’t wear headphones when I go running. I tell my spouse/parent/roommate my intended path before I leave the house. If I deviate at all, I let someone know where I am.
These things may sound like standard safety tips or maybe the practices of a hyper-paranoid individual. In fact, I would venture to say, they are more likely the standard practices of half our population – practices that are done routinely without much further thought. I would also bet these are practices that would never even cross the minds of the other half of our population. Go ahead. Ask your spouse or significant other. What precautions do they take, or are these types of safety precautions not even on their radar?
#MeToo is a viral hashtag that began in October 2017, following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. The #MeToo Movement was popularized by several high profile American celebrities and intended to highlight the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment, especially in the workplace. Although the hashtag went viral in 2017, the roots of the Movement go back as early as 2006, when Tarana Burke began using the phrase to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society. Recently, the impact of the Movement was returned to the media spotlight with the sexual assault claims and courageous testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings of then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
So, beyond becoming a more educated, well-rounded individual, why is this relevant to you, your practice of law, and the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys (NCADA)? The short answer: diversity and the business case for diversity. The Diversity Committee of NCADA strives to highlight topics that are relevant to your practice, but also topics that contribute to the enrichment of our profession as a whole. Last year, the Diversity Committee presented topics focusing on race relations. This year, we are highlighting topics addressing gender differentials. The Committee selected both of these topics in furtherance of the business case for diversity.
A recent online survey suggests that 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A 2017 Survey Report found at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) represents that one in three women and one in six men have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. A 2010 Summary Report found at the CDC represents that one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, while a 2001 Violence in the Workplace study shows that eight percent of rapes occur while the victim is at work.
Think of ten women in your workplace. Statistically speaking, eight of those ten women have experienced some form of sexual harassment and two of those women have been raped. The statistics are staggering; but again, why is this relevant here?
Research shows that the disparate impact of sexual assault and sexual harassment on women in the profession forces women out of jobs and affects their career attainment. Not only does the employer lose out on a qualified, diverse employee and their investment in that employee’s training and skills, but employers also face an increased turnover rate and a potentially hostile work environment from harassment claims that can lead to absenteeism, decreased morale, animosity, stress, and low productivity among staff.
Expensive lawsuits can result when companies fail to adequately prevent sexual harassment or when a company fails to properly handle a sexual harassment claim. In the past several years, jury awards in sexual harassment claims have been significant. In one claim, filed by the EEOC involving a rape and sexual harassment allegation against three male supervisors, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $17.4 million dollars. In another case against a global CEO from New York, a jury awarded a former employee $18 million dollars for retaliation, after the CEO’s unwanted sexual advances were refused.
Ultimately, the impact of sexual harassment and sexual assault affect a business’s bottom line, as illustrated by the business case for diversity. Today’s clients demand a diverse workforce; yet, many employers struggle with the recruitment and retention of qualified, diverse applicants. The impact of sexual assault and harassment on a diverse workforce remains one of many factors in this continual struggle.
As the Diversity Committee continues to develop and explore this topic at upcoming CLEs, events, and publications in 2019, we hope you will engage with us as we endeavor to create a more diverse and enriched profession.
Specific questions on these topics? Ideas for future topics? Please let us know! MelissaKWalker6@gmail.com
By William A. Bulfer and Brian M. Love
Among other things, autonomous programs that can “learn” through shared data retention and cooperative analysis are likely to eliminate risk on certain fronts, while creating new risks on others.
Early in 2018, the senior vice president and chief economist of the American Trucking Association issued what he referred to as his “warning shot to the industry.” John Kingston, ATA’s Costello Projects Out the Driver Shortage, and It’s a Big Number, Freight Waves (Apr. 3, 2018), https://www.freightwaves.com. The supply of truckload drivers in the United States over the next eight years is projected to be woefully inadequate. Unless something changes, there could be a shortfall of 175,000 drivers by 2026.
For an industry realizing more than $700 billion in annual revenue, the need for increased capacity is ripe for substantial investment. Technology that can produce greater efficiency and reduce risk has been in place for years and continues to be developed. While we are not yet living in a world where Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey is driving tractor trailers, smaller scale artificial intelligence in the form of GPS, electronic logs, and crash-data retrieval is already widespread and soon to be mandatory. Fully autonomous vehicles have progressed to the development phase, with driverless pilot programs already in operation. As this trend continues, issues relating to insurability and allocation of risk are sure to follow.
The present and future use of artificial intelligence in the trucking industry raises many questions. From the standard ISO commercial auto coverage forms and the associated MCS-90 endorsement, to commercial general liability and cyber liability forms, the expansion of artificial intelligence into an industry as diverse and widespread as trucking is a critical issue for both commercial auto carriers and the broader insurance market alike. This is particularly true given the possibility of risk transfer, allocation, and apportionment, as well as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s heavy oversight of the industry. Whether it should continue with the current regulatory and insurance standards, merge into other sectors of insurance, or begin an entirely new insurance and regulatory scheme is one of the most pressing issues in the trucking industry.
While the advancements discussed here are relatively new, the concept of technological advances working their way into the transportation sector is not. As stated by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 Federal Automated Vehicles policy, “Technology in transportation is not new. In fact, the airplane, the automobile, the train and the horse-drawn carriage all introduced new opportunities and new complications to the safe movement of people and goods.” U.S. Dept. of Transportation, DOT HS 812 329, Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (2016). Automation in vehicle movement is simply the next logical step in the evolution of vehicular technology.
Though this article focuses on the commercial trucking sector, no discussion of artificial intelligence in a vehicular context can be had without some discussion of passenger automobiles. Historically, advances in vehicular safety have largely started in the consumer auto sector and have worked their way into the trucking sector. From early advances in seat belt technology to the modern crash avoidance systems, advancements within the consumer sector that add value to trucking are routinely implemented and further developed. In doing so, these advances generally facilitate safety and efficiency.
Of the 37,461 lives that were lost on U.S. roadways in 2016, nearly 10 percent involved large trucks. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., Traffic Safety Facts 2016 Data (May 2018). Safety concerns are not, however, limited to the public’s encounters with large trucks on the road. More truck drivers (852) were killed while working than any other single occupation in 2016. Mark Baumgartner, Most Deadly Occupation: Truck Driver, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com.
The introduction of artificial intelligence is projected to reduce and eventually remove the opportunity for driver error, which will increase safety for drivers and the motoring public alike. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Google’s driverless vehicles, which have covered more than two million miles, have been involved in less than 20 collisions, none of which were caused by autonomous vehicle system failure. Ins. Inst. for Highway Safety, Special Issue: Autonomous Vehicles, Status Report, Vol. 53, No. 2 (2016).
In October 2015, the University of Michigan released a study that found that self-driving vehicles were not at fault for any of the crashes in which they were involved. Brandon Schoettle & Michael Sivak, A Preliminary Analysis of Real-World Crashes Involving Self-Driving Vehicles (Univ. of Mich. Transp. Res. Inst., Report No. UMTRI-2015-34, Oct. 2015). In a July 2018 white paper, Travelers noted a series of 2017 reports from KPMG that estimated “a 90-percent reduction in accident frequency by the year 2050.” Travelers Inst., Insuring Autonomy: How Auto Insurance Can Adapt to Changing Risks (White Paper, July 2018), https://www.travelers.com/travelers-institute. Stated simply, the introduction of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles will make trucking safer.
Autonomous vehicle technologies can increase efficiency and flexibility with industry supply chains and logistics operations. A combination of autonomous vehicles and other smart technologies can reduce labor costs and increase equipment and facility productivity. Moreover, once it is automated fully, a lean supply chain may help reduce overall load sizes and stock by leveraging smart distribution technologies and smaller autonomous vehicles.
Through the “internet of things” communication between logistics units and operating units with automated decision making and coordination is increasingly possible. As data is collected, it can be stored, and more importantly, evaluated and shared, to increase efficiency throughout the trucking marketplace. As the trucking industry moves toward more complete automation, the demand for drivers will correspondingly decrease to some extent, reducing the present driver shortage severity. If human truck drivers are ultimately displaced by artificial intelligence, efficiency will increase even more by reducing the downtime currently required by human operators.
Levels of Autonomy
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has published an accepted standard identifying five levels of motor vehicle automation. Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems, SAE J3016 (2016). Each level is based the extent of driver involvement in relation to the automated system:
SAE Level 0: the human driver does everything.
SAE Level 1: an automated system on the vehicle can sometimes assist the human driver conduct some parts of the driving task.
SAE Level 2: an automated system on the vehicle can actually conduct some parts of the driving task, while the human continues to monitor the driving environment and performs the rest of the driving task.
SAE Level 3: an automated system can both actually conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment in some instances, but the human driver must be ready to take back control when the automated system requests.
SAE Level 4: an automated system can conduct the driving task and monitor the driving environment, and the human need not take back control, but the automated system can operate only in certain environments and under certain conditions.
SAE Level 5: the automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Federal Automated Vehicles Policy incorporates the five-level classification in SAE J3016 and projects that level five automation will be achieved by 2025, noting,
Fully autonomous cars and trucks that drive us instead of us driving them will become a reality. These self-driving vehicles ultimately will integrate onto U.S. roadways by progressing through six levels of driver assistance technology advancements in the coming years. This includes everything from no automation (where a fully engaged driver is required at all times), to full autonomy (where an automated vehicle operates independently, without a human driver).
As integration continues, the risk of driver error will necessarily decrease and the application of traditional insurance models will result in new challenges.
Existing and Emerging Technologies
With the trucking industry bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars each year, the use of artificial technology is limited more by capacity than demand. As a result, research and development have increased. Motor carriers and vendors for the trucking industry similarly are continually looking to create and implement artificial intelligence to increase efficiency, safety, and ultimately, profitability.
When considering artificial intelligence it is tempting to think of Hal subsuming the role of humans. The reality, however, is that artificial intelligence has been part of daily life in the trucking industry for some time. Current technologies include radar sensors, onboard cameras, laser distance measuring (LiDAR), GPS systems, and the interactive technology that integrates these systems into a single truck. Crash-data retrieval systems and associated technology make driving a truck and reacting to acute risk safer. When a collision does occur, the data can be analyzed and learned from, improving safety and accurate risk apportionment.
Artificial intelligence also helps with logistics, through electronic logging (ELD) and the use of systems that track everything from breaking, to traffic patterns and sleeping habits of drivers. Indeed, the use of ELDs has been so universally accepted as positively affecting safety and efficiency that Congress has mandated their implementation as part of its Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. Other technologies such as blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking (crash-eminent braking), forward collision warning systems, following distance-monitoring systems, pedestrian automatic-emergency braking systems, and lane-keeping support are similarly being placed in power units with increased frequency.
Current Regulatory Climate
Overlaying the insurance challenges as the trucking industry becomes more autonomous is the question of how regulatory and legislative changes will affect future risk handling. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requirement for insurance and application of the MCS-90 endorsement are bound to affect future claims in the autonomous sector. At the same time, federal and state efforts to understand and to legislate in the autonomous-use arena are already taking place.
U.S. Department of Transportation – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
In September of 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s NHTSA updated its “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.” The policy sets forth guidelines and policies for vehicle performance, current and future federal regulatory tools, and model state policies.
The NHTSA envisions that autonomous vehicle technology will be regulated at the federal level, while the states would be responsible for licensing drivers, registering autonomous vehicles, enacting and enforcing traffic laws, conducting safety inspections on autonomous vehicles, and regulating autonomous vehicle insurance and the allocation of liability.
The NHTSA has promulgated model state policies governing highly automated vehicles (HAVs). In creating the model state policies, the NHTSA’s goal is to avoid a “patchwork of inconsistent laws and regulations” among the states. To this end, the NHTSA makes certain recommendations for state-level regulations on HAVs, such as who must carry motor vehicle insurance and who is the “driver” of an HAV for purposes of determining accident fault. For example, the NHTSA recommends that states consider a human to be the “driver” of a vehicle when the “human is primarily responsible for monitoring the driving environment (generally SAE Levels 1-2)” for purposes of traffic laws. Such a bright-line rule becomes more difficult to apply as the extent of autonomy increases beyond SAE Levels 1–2 toward a fully autonomous vehicle.
As a consequence, the NHTSA has recognized that a comprehensive regulatory framework is not practical at present and could have unintended consequences. State laws and regulations allocating tort liability could eventually have a significant effect on consumer demand and acceptance of HAVs, the rate at which HAVs are deployed, and the cost of insuring operation of HAVs. The NHTSA thusly foresees that in the future, the states “may identify additional liability issues and seek to develop consistent solutions” and that it “may be desirable to create a commission to study liability insurance issues and make recommendations to the States.”
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
On April 24, 2017, the FMCSA held a public listening session to solicit information relating to the design, development, testing, and integration of automated driving system-equipped commercial motor vehicles. Highly Automated Commercial Vehicles Public Session, 82 Fed. Reg. 18,096 (Apr. 17, 2017). September 2017 policy expressed the belief that FMCSA regulations would require that “a trained commercial driver must be behind the wheel at all times, regardless of any automated driving technologies available on the commercial motor vehicle, unless a petition for a waiver or exemption has been granted.” Request for Comments on Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations on the Safe Testing and Deployment of Automated Driving Systems-Equipped Commercial Motor Vehicles, 83 Fed. Reg. 12,933, 12,935 (Mar. 26, 2018).
The FMCSA has encouraged states to “work together to standardize and maintain road infrastructure including signs, traffic signals and lights, and pavement markings” so as to better enable the application of artificial intelligence across state lines.” . Volpe Nat’l Transp. Sys. Ctr., Review of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations for Automated Commercial Vehicles: Preliminary Assessment of Interpretation and Enforcement Challenges, Questions, and Gaps, No. FMCSA-RRT-17-013, (Mar. 2018). A few states, including California, already have laws in place allowing for the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Cal. Code Regs. Title 13, § 227.00, et seq. (2018).
Application of the Traditional Insurance Model
In the trucking context, the traditional insurance model is based on negligence, or more plainly stated, driver error. Semi-autonomous operation has already been shown to reduce the margins of error, and as discussed above, greater implementation of artificial intelligence has the potential to remove virtually all operator error.
As this trend continues, insurance practices and markets will face new challenges and a new paradigm for insurance and risk transfer. These challenges are complicated further in the trucking sector with the application of the MCS-90 Endorsement for Motor Carrier Policies of Insurance for Public Liability under Sections 29 and 30 of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980.
The Present Paradigm—Commercial Auto Policy and the MCS-90
In most cases, the party at fault for an auto accident is the driver. In a world of autonomous vehicles, however, it is foreseeable that liability will shift to the manufacturers of autonomous vehicles, suppliers of their components, and data service providers. At what point will liability shift away from the driver?
The insuring agreement under the standard ISO commercial auto form provides coverage for “all sums an ‘insured’ legally must pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies, caused by an ‘accident’ and resulting from the ownership, maintenance or use of a covered ‘auto’.” This raises the question of whether an accident involving an autonomous vehicle would be covered. The answer to this question depends on whether the autonomous vehicle is an “auto,” and whether the accident resulted from the insured’s “maintenance or use” of the autonomous vehicle.
The ISO commercial auto forms generally define “auto” as “ [a] land motor vehicle, ‘trailer’ or semitrailer designed for travel on public roads” or “[a]ny other land vehicle that is subject to a compulsory or financial responsibility law or other motor vehicle insurance law where it is licensed or principally garaged.” The definition of “auto” excludes “mobile equipment.” The definition of “mobile equipment” excludes “[l]and vehicles subject to a compulsory or financial responsibility law or other motor vehicle insurance law.” Noticeably absent from the ISO commercial auto form is the mandate that an auto be operated by a human. Without some clarification on this point, questions regarding the applicability of the terms “auto,” “maintenance,” and “use” will likely become a source of coverage litigation for years to come.
In litigated cases involving property damage and personal injury, the present system that facilitates (relatively) prompt resolution of claims and compensation to victims is likely to become slower due to the introduction of these coverage questions. Still, without moving to a no-fault system, it is difficult to see how these increasingly complicated issues with regard to fault and insurability can be quickly streamlined. As a result, legislative action or movement within the current insurance framework presently represent the two most likely solutions.
Under the majority view, the terms of the MCS–90 endorsement supersede the terms of an underlying insurance policy so as to determine the relationship between an injured member of the public and the MCS–90 insurer. Carolina Cas. Ins. Co. v. Yeates, 584 F.3d 868, 878–79 (10th Cir. 2009). While the majority of cases conclude that the MCS–90 endorsement only operates to protect the public and does not alter the relationship between the insured and the insurer, the practical effect on trucking insurers, even as artificial intelligence becomes more prevalent, is likely to be an immediate obligation to indemnify when public liability risk is involved.
The MCS-90 endorsement applies to and provides coverage for public liability risk as follows:
In consideration of the premium stated in the policy to which this endorsement is attached, the insurer (the company) agrees to pay, within the limits of liability described herein, any final judgment recovered against the insured for public liability resulting from negligence in the operation, maintenance or use of motor vehicles subject to the financial responsibility requirements of Sections 29 and 30 of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 regardless of whether or not each motor vehicle is specifically described in the policy and whether or not such negligence occurs on any route or in any territory authorized to be served by the insured or elsewhere.
The MCS-90 endorsement also states,
It is understood and agreed that no condition, provision, stipulation, or limitation contained in the policy, this endorsement, or any other endorsement thereon, or violation thereof, shall relieve the company from liability or from the payment of any final judgment, within the limits of liability herein described, irrespective of the financial condition, insolvency or bankruptcy of the insured.
The broad scope of coverage, “resulting from negligence in the operation, maintenance or use of motor vehicles,” absent legislative reform, may thus implicate commercial auto coverage, even if liability is not directly attributable to the driver or motor carrier.
Collectively, new technologies have had positive effects on logistics, truck function, and driver function with corresponding safety, efficiency, and environmental benefits. Developing technologies are expected to bring increasing vehicle autonomy and continued, positive results. Refinement of current technology and development of new technologies continues and compounds. The ability of autonomous programing to “learn” through shared data retention and cooperative analysis is likely to eliminate risk on certain fronts, while creating new risks on others.
While the frequency and severity of collisions are likely to be reduced, for example, the cost of a claim that does arise may well increase. Property damage to artificial intelligence systems is likely to be more expensive. Arguments regarding causation and risk transfer may increase the cost of litigation. Previously inapplicable areas of risk that may be more unfamiliar to the industry will need to be considered.
Product Liability Paradigm
As the spectrum of autonomous involvement gravitates toward level five on the SAE scale, the traditional model of risk will become more difficult to apply. On one hand, the number of expected incidents, and thus, the comparable cost and need for auto liability insurance will be reduced. On the other hand, when loss does occur, it is more likely to be caused by the failure of an autonomous system rather than operator error. To be certain, there is generally a “human” component to motor vehicle negligence. Even in a fully autonomous situation, it remains to be seen whether the human driver will have a duty to pay attention and intervene to avoid an accident. The level and timing of human involvement could eventually fall outside of the traditional operator framework. In such circumstances, the product liability paradigm may offer an alternative.
As artificial intelligence is incorporated, the manufacturers and suppliers of its systems and components will become increasingly be intertwined with their maintenance and use. This integration will occur over time, so operator involvement both in and outside of the cab will remain a reality for the foreseeable future. It is also likely that insurance for the manufacturers of these systems will remain under commercial general liability, where it currently exists.
In the future, however, new tangential risks are likely to emerge. These risks include the addition of motor carriers and their drivers as additional insureds and the need to protect against new cyber risk as data is collected and shared. While the current insurance framework is likely to be capable of addressing this risk, planning for it requires an in-depth understanding of the technologies being implemented.
Critics of a shift to the product liability paradigm have suggested that “alternative risk transfer mechanisms like product liability are not structured to be primary, comprehensive solutions.” Travelers Inst., supra. In support of this challenge, Travelers points out the complex nature of product liability lawsuits and regulatory overlay compared with what it identifies as existing compensation systems and the unique position of the auto insurance to address this risk. Id.
Given the nature of the prospective risk associated with increased autonomy and involvement of artificial intelligence, a case can be made that adherence to the current commercial auto liability paradigm and moving toward a products-based risk transfer both have merit, Likewise, both are challenging to foresee implementing in the future. Ultimately however, the argument over their applications may be the insurance equivalent of “fighting the last war.” If one were to apply a product liability model to the current auto structure it is easy to see how the compensation system would grind to a halt. At the same time, the data produced thus far suggests a drastic reduction in incidents so that the remaining losses may well require the level of engagement and sophistication typically reserved presently for the product liability sector.
Insurance for a Future with Commercial Autonomous Vehicles
Perhaps more than any other issue, the confluence of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles with the present non-autonomous motoring public is where the rubber meets the road. It is unknown how humans will interact with artificial intelligence operating in their environment. It also remains to be seen how the insurance industry will adjust and evolve.
In making its recommendation pertaining to liability insurance, the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, as updated in September of 2017, notes, “rules and laws allocating tort liability could have a significant effect on both consumer acceptance of HAVs and their rate of deployment. Such rules also could have a substantial effect on the level and incidence of automobile liability insurance costs in jurisdictions in which HAVs operate.”
Driver error plays a role in most motor vehicle crashes in the United States. In the future, a reduction in losses arising from motor vehicle accidents due to the introduction of artificial intelligence should correspond to lower premiums for commercial and personal auto liability policies. Moreover, if there is a shift in the allocation of tort liability toward a product liability model, then it is conceivable that the auto insurance industry could at some point in the future become a thing of the past. In this scenario, risk might be borne by insurers writing commercial general liability coverage to auto manufacturers.
The risk associated with introducing artificial intelligence is not limited to physical injury and property damage. Data security and personal privacy will certainly become sources of potential risk and corresponding insurability as artificial intelligence is implemented. With the cost of a data breach in the United States averaging just under $8 million, the prospective cost of insuring this new technology is sure to rise as well.
Even as new regulatory and insurance solutions are being forged, some of the projected challenges of new technology are already here today. Artificial intelligence is present in one way or another in every commercial motor vehicle presently operating. Though Hal is not refusing to open the pod bay doors, there are and will continue to be problems that relate to the implementation and expansion of technology in commercial vehicles. Addressing these changes on an ongoing basis and with a clear understanding that the future will look decidedly different than today represents the best opportunity for government, the trucking industry, and the insurance sector to identify areas in need of modification, regulation, or wholesale change.
The authors would like to acknowledge the significant contributions of their silent partner, an industry professional who, because of company policy, is not able to be named as an author.
This article is reprinted with permission from the October 2018 Issue of For the Defense, the publication of DRI.
Maithilee K. Pathak, PhD, JD
Much has been written about conspiracy theories in the American psyche, some of which are classic (e.g., assassination of JFK, Roswell), others comical (e.g., the Earth is flat), and others pernicious (e.g., Sandy Hook never happened). More people believe in conspiracy theories than you might think. Did you know that roughly one-third of jurors (34%) agree with the statement that “the 1969 moon landing was faked”? 1
The Age of Trump has given conspiracy theories room to flourish, in part because of ubiquitous access to the internet, daily harangues about “fake news,” and the viral nature of social media platforms (e.g., Twitter). As an increasing amount of substantive material is characterized as “fake,” a decreasing amount of truly fringe material is dismissed as wholly outlandish and incredible. Thus, conspiracy theories take on a patina of legitimacy—or at minimum, plausibility. People are left wondering what information is reliable and trustworthy, and what is actually “fake.” As a litigator, why should you care?
One consequence of the “What’s-fake-what’s-real?” conundrum is an erosion of public confidence in both corporations and institutions; many people today doubt the integrity of large companies, regulatory and law enforcement agencies (e.g., EPA, FDA, FBI, local police) and the legal system (e.g., attorneys, legislators, and judges alike).
The degradation of confidence in corporations has profound implications for corporate litigants for multiple reasons. For example, jurors are increasingly inclined to discount expert testimony (e.g., jurors conclude that “both sides just have their hired guns,” and/or that “statistics can lie”). Jurors are also more likely to hold companies to idealistic standards of conduct, reasoning that they should do more than meet government standards (e.g., jurors cynically argue that “regulations are determined by company lobbyists”).
In today’s jury climate, jurors simultaneously feel powerful and powerless.
In what way do jurors feel powerful? The internet provides infinite access to information, and information is empowering. “Google” is a verb in the American lexicon. Access to information leads people to confidently conclude, “I can do this!” regardless of what “this” is. People today believe they can renovate their homes, cook gourmet meals, evaluate the safety and efficacy of medications—and solve complex lawsuits. Jurors are confident that they can put information together and “figure it out.”
In what way do jurors feel powerless? Recent media coverage on the mood and psychology of “average Americans” says many feel embattled, abandoned and vulnerable. Pollsters report increased anxiety, disillusionment, unhappiness and distrust in the general population. Jurors’ number one concern is government corruption and pollution and climate change rank among the top 10. 2 Jurors feel they are subject to the whims of powerful corporations perceived to be in control.
Why should corporate litigants be concerned about today’s jury climate?
Increased anxiety and fear provide fertile ground for Ball and Keenan’s reptile strategy to take root.3 The reptile framework generally involves arguing that: (1) the defendant violated a fundamental “safety rule” of operating in society, one which is virtually impossible to controvert; (2) the defendant’s conduct endangered the plaintiff and, left unchecked, endangers the community at large; (3) the plaintiffs need and deserve compensation; and (4) it is incumbent on jurors to render a large award and send a message to the defendant to safeguard the community. The reptile strategy activates jurors’ fears. Plaintiffs advancing the reptile strategy essentially argue that the defendant company acted negligently (e.g., by rejecting industry norms, etc.) and endangered everyone in its ambit. The plaintiffs argue that the only way to get the company “back in line” is to hit it with a huge verdict, thereby negating the company’s cost/benefit analysis. Jurors are implored to correct the errant behavior of the defendant rule-breaker through 8, 9 or 10-digit verdicts (or more).
What must corporate defendants do to prevail in court?
Defense attorneys must do more than merely “respond” to the plaintiffs’ claims. They must provide an alternative explanation for the bad outcome that upends the plaintiff narrative.
Imagine a product liability suit arising from an accident involving an overturned golf cart, a teenage driver (“RJ”) and severe leg injuries to a 10-year-old girl (“MJ”). RJ had been driving his sister around on his grandfather’s farmland when he lost control of the cart, veered off the dirt road and tipped the vehicle into a shallow trough. MJ extended her leg to brace herself as she tumbled from the bench seat and ultimately found her ankle pinned under the cart. MJ’s parents filed suit against the cart manufacturer, alleging design defect based on the absence of a foot guard (i.e., estimated production cost per unit: $2.50) and inadequate warnings (i.e., estimated cost per unit: pennies).
This plaintiff storyline has the thematic components necessary for a compelling case at trial: a sympathetic victim (MJ), a villainous company (the multibillion-dollar cart manufacturer) and customer betrayal (the company put profits over safety).
The defense might argue that the owner’s manual clearly stated the importance of keeping arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and the obvious risk of overturning when operating at excessive speeds and/or on uneven terrain. The company might also argue that the cart design met or exceeded all industry standards, had a solid safety record, etc. These are good defense arguments, and they are likely necessary to win the case, but they alone are probably insufficient to overcome the reptile framework.
Subject to the reptile tactics in depositions, witnesses would likely be asked questions like, “Wouldn’t you agree that a design engineer has a responsibility to avoid needlessly endangering the public?” and “Wouldn’t you agree that it is always better to be safe than sorry?” An unprepared design engineer would likely feel compelled to concede both points, creating a suboptimal pre-trial record and reinforcing idealistic expectations of the company.
Defense counsel must provide an affirmative story that advances the defense case and motivates jurors to argue it in deliberations. The concepts of knowledge and control are key to doing this.
Jurors apportion blame in all cases by assessing each party’s level of knowledge and control over the circumstances precipitating the lawsuit. The greater the level of knowledge and control ascribed to your client, the more likely you are to lose.
As compared to the injured girl, the golf cart manufacturer will surely be perceived as having superior knowledge and control. After all, the company had engineers trained to improve cart stability, account for human reflexes, etc., and the company certainly had 100% control over its profit margins. But, all product manufacturers are not doomed in every case. Why? Jurors are complicated and generally sensible.
Jurors invariably bring to the courtroom the attitudes and experiences that influence the way they hear, process, remember and recall information. People can hold two seemingly countervailing perceptions at the same time. For example, a person may think it is wrong to kill, but killing in self-defense may be justified. Similarly, a person may harbor some anti-corporate views, but also espouse personal responsibility and accountability. So, even in the face of jury venires that appear rabidly anti-corporate, litigators should assume that jurors harbor some predispositions that are defense-friendly.
Litigators must identify predispositions favoring the defense and leverage them at trial. Jurors must be armed with specific evidence to argue your case and, importantly, be motivated to do so in deliberations.
Many common juror predispositions favor product manufacturers. For example, the vast majority of jurors believe that most accidents are due to human error, not defective products, regardless of the product at issue.4 The majority of jurors also believe that student drivers should be trained and supervised, and statistics consistently show that teens are high-risk drivers. Furthermore, most jurors believe product owners should not modify or disable safety systems on equipment (e.g., remove restraints, rails or seatbelts).
The golf cart manufacturer can prevail at trial by elevating the knowledge and control that the jurors ascribe to other parties closer to the incident. This might include bringing out the following case facts in the opening:
After all, the accident may not have happened if any one of these factors had been reversed. To be clear, the manufacturer cannot win by merely attacking 15-year-old RJ for having maimed his little sister. But, by asking “Who was in the best position to have averted this crash?” the company can reframe the case from “innocent child victimized by greedy corporation” to “tragic accident involving a safe product used improperly.”
Jurors will reconsider the merits of the plaintiffs’ overly simplistic victim/villain storyline if the company can: (1) elevate the knowledge and control of the people closest to the incident; and (2) assuage jurors’ fears that the company is operating “off the rails,” without regard for the safety of customers and the community. This is true even in today’s jury climate which is rife with fear, anxiety and idealistic expectations. Granted, jurors often grumble about getting seated on a jury—after all, it can be inconvenient, disruptive, stressful, expensive, etc. But, once seated and sworn, jurors become emotionally invested in “figuring it out”—in reaching the right conclusion. Play your cards right, and jurors will reach your conclusion.
About the author
Maithilee Pathak Phd., JD, is a partner at R&D Strategic Solutions. She has devoted her professional career to understanding jury-decision-making in complex risky cases. She develops compelling conceptual and visual strategies for trial to help her clients win. Dr. Pathak obtained her doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, and her law degree from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
1 Based on data collected by R&D Strategic Solutions in 18 venues across the nation (N=681)
2 America's Top Fears 2017, Chapman University Survey of American Fears, October 11, 2017
3 David Ball and Don Keena, "Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff's Revolution"
4 R&D Research has consitently found 80-90% of mock jurors agree that accidents are more likely due to human error than product defect in cases involving tires, vehicles, appliances and more.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Georgia Defense Lawyers Association Journal.
SCIENTIFIC METHOD APPLIED TO ACCIDENT RECONSTRUCTION
Biomechanical analyses have long played a role in vehicle accident investigation, typically performing injury analysis and the determination of occupant kinematics and impact forces to the body. Here, we explain how the scientific method can be adapted to accident reconstruction from a biomechanical and human factors perspective, incorporating by reference various aspects of accident investigation and engineering analyses for the purpose of testing hypotheses.
Determining what happened in an accident to a reasonable degree of scientific or engineering certainty is driven by a process of accident reconstruction that utilizes biomechanics, injury analysis, and human factors as critical analysis components. The process utilizes the scientific method as a framework for testing compatibility or consistency of different aspects of data or information that has been gathered about an accident (Fig. 1). Preliminary information provides context for understanding the general circumstances surrounding the
accident and guides the overall direction of scientific inquiry. From this information, hypotheses can be generated about specific occurrences or a sequence of events. Usually, these hypotheses are posed as “testable” statements (formulated as either a null hypothesis or in the affirmative) or as questions, where the answer meaningfully directs the analysis toward conclusion. Many times, answers are most useful when they are exclusionary, in that a specific event or sequence can be ruled out. The most important step is ‘testing’ the hypotheses. In this step, a protocol or technique is devised that will identify and gather the appropriate data to analyze to either support or refute the testable statements, or answer the questions. In investigating accidents that have already occurred, these tests may be physical experiments and/or demonstrations of scientific principles, but routinely this is not a practical approach. This is particularly true in human injury analysis where physical experiments can be problematic or impractical. Instead, analyzing research literature (often regarding previously published physical experiments) and other sources of information is the most common way to test these hypotheses. Reasonable care should be used with witness data. In situations where the witness’s version of events is in conflict with the laws of physics or the verifiable physical evidence, those aspects of the testimony must be rejected.
In utilizing the scientific method, a multitude of data from various sources is obtained in order to test the working hypotheses. To ensure it is useful and complete, this data must be organized and considered in a systematic way. One method is a modified Haddon matrix, where the ‘man’-related data is separated into injury data and human factors data, and both are potentially modified by medical factors (Fig. 2). Data are separated into the temporal categories: Before, During, and After the accident, if deemed appropriate for the specific accident reconstruction. The categories provided in the columns of Figure 2 are discussed further below.
Injury As Physical Evidence
The focal point of this method is using the ‘man’-related data, and in particular the injuries, as physical evidence that must be reconciled in order to have an accurate accident reconstruction. The injuries (and other human interactions) in the accident are used as a signature of the where, how, and when the person was placed within the accident sequence. The biomechanical physical evidence can be just as essential as the other physical evidence gathered relating to the product/machine and accident environment (Fig. 2, Col. 1).
To apply this method, the injuries are described by type, location, appearance, and severity from a review of the medical records (which may include review of X-rays, CTs, and MRIs), photographs, witness statements, medical examiner reports, and other similar sources. Second, the injury mechanism for each injury is determined. Injury mechanism information is often ascertained through comparison with specific data documented in the injury research literature. The mechanism provides information about the nature of energy transferred to the body (e.g. mechanical, thermal, electrical) and describes the specific method and means required to create the injury. For example, a spiral fracture of a long bone requires a torsional force component applied about the long axis of the bone. For a mechanically mediated injury, describing the body movements and the forces on and within the body that create the injury allows for an understanding of necessary physical interaction of the human body with the environment. Finally, determining the injury threshold or human tolerance for a particular type of injury can be important in accident analyses, since it provides context to the severity of the incident and the magnitude of force, acceleration, deflection etc. that typically produces injury. For many injury mechanisms, normal biomechanical tolerance has been established in the injury research literature, and provides a comparison to the specific injury or event being analyzed. In many cases, comparison of the accident exposure characteristics is made with biomechanical data from activities of daily living or voluntary human exposure research (see Medical Factors section below in situations where relevant pre-existing conditions/injuries exist).
In accidents where multiple injuries have been received, their pattern and distribution create a ‘constellation of injuries’ that can provide a unique insight to the accident. The steps are repeated for each injury, and those with similar mechanisms or locations are matched. Even what are typically considered minor or superficial injuries can provide important evidence to properly place a person in the reconstruction of an accident scenario.
Human factors data can be another critical component in the accident reconstruction. Human factors is a discipline that evaluates how people interact with their environment and encompasses physical and psychological aspects of human performance, capabilities, characteristics, and interfacing with tools, machines, and the environment. From an accident reconstruction perspective, this application is typically focused on the events leading up to and during the accident sequence in order to evaluate what and how it happened, and in some cases why (Fig. 2, Col. 2). Where appropriate, an individual’s anthropometry should be identified, including one’s height, weight, and segment lengths, which are all aspects of physical evidence that are relevant for addressing a person’s position, posture, and fit within the accident environment. Anthropometric and human factors data are available that describe a wide range of human measurements and provide context for accident specific evaluations. Surrogate studies are an additional means by which human factors considerations can be addressed.
Important to note are medical factors that could be potential modifiers of both the injury and human factors aspects (Fig. 2, Col. 1 & 2). A person’s health and/or medical condition may have a direct influence on their ability to resist trauma. The presence of disease or other pre-existing conditions, and the use of alcohol, drugs, or medications can have an impact on a person’s physical capabilities as well as their sensory perception and reaction. In these situations, an aspect of the analysis may include a determination of potential exacerbating influences, and whether a particular event is a significant contributor to the existing condition. This determination must follow the same methods described herein. In these circumstances, the mechanism of injury must still be present (e.g. the appropriate direction of force, acceleration, etc.), and comparison of an event with reasonable activities of daily living may be useful.
Product/Machine and Environment
Similarly, data must be gathered about other accident circumstances in order to put the injuries and human factors into context (Fig. 2, Col. 3 & 4). The geometry and layout of the accident site create physical evidence in the form of constraints, boundaries, and specific conditions (e.g. lighting, slip resistance). In accidents where products or machinery are involved, a description or knowledge of such things as the size, shape, materials, construction, controls, movement/action directions, speeds, and other characteristics of the equipment is important to understand the potential human interactions. Particular attention is given to documenting the damage, failed components, and/or witness marks that resulted from the accident. This gives key physical evidence about the nature of physical interaction between the man, machine, and environment. A range of failure analysis techniques are available to determine these interactions. In cases involving vehicles, the analysis can include a determination of the vehicle kinematics, as well as an assessment of the principle direction of force (PDOF) and velocity change (delta V) experienced. This information can then be used to determine occupant kinematics. It is not the intent of this paper to describe all the detailed analyses that are conducted on the product/machine or environment, but the data from these components is key to the accident reconstruction.
TEST AND ANALYSIS OF THE DATA
At the root of every accurate and complete accident reconstruction is consistency with the laws of physics and accounting for all the available physical evidence. When analyzing the data gathered and developed from the man, product/machine, and environment, the physics of all interactions between and within these groups must be consistent. This is identified in the bottom row of Figure 2. By regarding the injuries as physical evidence, they become not just an outcome of the accident, but an additional component (resource) to use in testing accident reconstruction hypotheses. In situations where there are inconsistencies between the available information, one must side with the physical evidence. Where there are apparent inconsistencies in the physical evidence, the data must be reexamined to resolve them. In this sense, the process can be iterative.
By following this method, the biomechanical accident reconstruction conclusions are founded in science and consistent with the laws of physics. Not all reconstructions will lead to a single answer. The available data that are gathered or developed may not be able to exclude all possibilities but one. This is usually a function of the ability to gather or develop sufficient data for this purpose. These efforts still have tremendous value, since knowing what did not happen can be just as important as knowing what did happen.
*This article is adapted from the following peer reviewed publication. Please refer to the publication for additional details and case examples.
Knox EH, Mathias AC, Stern AR, Van Bree MP, Brickman DB. “Methods Of Accident Reconstruction: Biomechanical And Human Factors Considerations.” Proceedings of the AMSE 2015 International Mechanical Engineering Conference and Exposition. Houston, Texas: November 13-19, 2015.
Fall Protection for Buildings: Usage, Responsibilities, and Risk
By: Robert N. Kenney, P.E. and Nila Abubakar, P.E.
OSHA’s recent “at-height” work protection rule, 29 CFR 1926.501 states that it is not just the Contractor that is liable for worker fall risk. Building Owners also are liable for providing safe “at-height” work protection.
The construction industry represents the largest amount of fatality work by volume and rate (Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2015 data). Fall risks are present everywhere, especially since we are all affected by gravity. Falls account for 40% of construction fatalities. To provide appropriate fall protection, it helps to evaluate usage, responsibilities and risks from the perspective of hazard preventative measures.
Hazards and required fall protection can be evaluated based on a hierarchy of fall protection. This hierarchy helps determine what equipment may be necessary to complete a task as well as provide direction on associated risks. The hierarchy ranks fall protection from no risk, to limited risk, to high risk.
1. Hazard / Fall Elimination – This is the ideal method for fall protection. By eliminating the need to do work at height, the fall risk is eliminated. Work can be performed from the ground utilizing drones, telephoto lenses or equipment affixed to an extendable pole.
2. Passive Fall Protection – Separates the worker from a fall risk or hazard by use of hole covers or the use of Guardrail systems.
Examples of Guardrails:
3. Fall Restraint – If hazards cannot be eliminated for the worker, a fall restraint that includes securing a worker to an anchorage with a tether could be used to reduce the possibility of a worker falling over a free edge. Work that is routinely performed with predictable paths, such as gutter maintenance, benefits from this sort of fall protection. It is also required per OSHA 1910.28: The employer must ensure that each employee on a walking-working surface with an unprotected side or edge that is 4 feet or more above a lower level is protected from falling by one or more of the following - Guardrail systems; Safety net systems; or Personal fall protection systems, such as personal fall arrest (PFAS), travel restraint or positioning system.
4. Fall Arrest – Often used interchangeably with fall restraint, fall arrest systems differ in that they allow freedom of movement to perform activities. In the event of a fall, fall arrest systems safely stop a falling individual before they come into contact with the ground or surface below. An anchorage for fall arrest, positioning, restraint, or rescue systems must be capable of supporting the potential fall forces that could be encountered during a fall. For fall arrest systems to be certified, the minimum design force considered to be a static load is equal to 5,000 pounds or 2x (i.e. twice) the maximum arresting force. These tie-off points must be “certified” by a registered professional engineer or other “qualified” person as defined below. Alternatively, a non-certified anchorage can be determined by a competent person.
One key addition is that a tethered system must also have a separate fall arrest line. Thus, a “certified” building davit for a typical swing stage or swing chair will need to have a certified davit or tie-off anchor and a separate “certified” fall arrest line tie-off point directly connected to the individual(s) on the swing stage or chair.
Examples of Building Anchorages:
5. Administrative Controls – Involves use of signals and warnings to indicate the presence of fall hazards. These controls include safety monitors, warning lines and restriction access codes. These controls prove to be the most ineffective form of fall protection.
Rules, Regulations, and Standards
OSHA 1926 provides Safety and Health Regulations for Construction. The most frequently cited serious violations of OSHA 1926, Subpart M are:
1. Failure to protect workers from falls of 6 feet or more off unprotected sides or edges, e.g. floors and roofs.
2. Failure to protect workers from falling into or through holes and openings in floors and walls.
3. Failure to provide guardrails on runways and ramps where workers are exposed to falls to a lower level of 6 feet or more.
ANSI Z359, the “Fall Protection Code,” is the voluntary consensus standard and is written in language that can be adopted by local jurisdictions. The intention of this code is that employers whose operations fall within the scope and purpose of the standard will adopt its guidelines and requirements. In this document, the following definitions are provided:
Section 3.2.3, “Qualified Person” (partial):
Section 3.2.4, “Competent Person” (partial):
Section 3.2.4, “Authorized Person” (partial):
The goal of building owners and property managers is to mitigate risk and liability for work performed on their property by Contractors and by the Owner’s in-house staff. To perform this, responsibilities include:
The goal of Contractors is to mitigate risk and liability for their Employees performing work for the contracting company. To perform this, responsibilities include:
In summary, skilled safe access requires a holistic approach for proper execution. Roles and responsibilities must be defined and access plans must be in place. Trained and certified personnel using proper equipment are necessary to mitigate risk.
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