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Admissibility of Out-of-Court Experiments in Texas Car Accident Case

In a recent Texas appellate decision, a woman challenged the lower court’s judgment in a lawsuit for negligence and wrongful death. Among other things, she claimed the lower court had made a mistake in admitting a video recording of an experiment that had happened outside of court.

The case arose when the plaintiffs claimed that a minivan had crashed into a sedan driven by the defendant at an intersection controlled by a traffic signal. The minivan passenger was the mother of the plaintiffs, and she suffered fatal injuries, dying after the accident. The plaintiffs claimed the defendant had not used ordinary care in going into the intersection without paying attention to the red traffic light, not controlling her car’s speed, and not looking out carefully or applying her brakes on time. They claimed her failure to use ordinary care was the legal cause of their mother’s death and asked for loss of companionship and mental anguish as their damages, in addition to more concrete damages.

The defendant denied the claim and said the accident was caused by the driver of the car in which the decedent was riding. The defendant lived on that street and was familiar with the signal at issue. She claimed the light was green as she headed toward the intersection, and there were no other cars on the road in front of her, although there were stopped cars on the intersecting street. There was some discrepancy in her claims about stopped cars.

The driver of the car in which the decedent was riding testified at deposition that she looked to her right, heard a loud noise, and found herself on the curb. She told the police she thought there was a green light, but later she became certain of it. The decedent remarked that another car wasn’t stopping just before the crash. She tried to swerve to avoid the sedan. Afterward, the decedent smelled smoke and felt nauseous. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital and was unresponsive when she got there. She’d sustained as injuries a ruptured liver and spleen and died. Her certificate of death said she died from blunt force injuries.

An expert witness for the plaintiffs on traffic accident reconstruction examined the city’s records to look at the programming of the traffic lights. She also went to the intersection and found that the traffic light stayed green unless a driver approached on one of the roads. The sensors would cycle to red to permit traffic on that road to go through. She conducted an experiment outside of court to show the sequencing of the traffic lights.

She went to the intersection at the time of the accident and had her assistant drive through at different speeds and from different places. She video-recorded the signal lights and found that in every situation, to trigger the cycling to red, a driver going eastbound on the same road as the defendant had to stop or come within a mile per hour in front of the traffic light on that road. No motorist simply caught a green light on that road, unless another driver was going in front of them. She testified as to various observations about how the traffic lights worked. The plaintiffs offered into evidence three video recordings of her experiment.

The defendant objected. She argued that they were more prejudicial than probative and that there were things to distinguish the lighting conditions at the time of the experiment from those at the time of the collision. However, the lower court admitted the video recordings as demonstrative exhibits. The defendant’s defense was based on the notion that the driver of the decedent’s car was negligent.

The jury found that both the driver of the decedent’s car and the defendant were negligent and proximately caused the accident. It found the defendant 80% negligent and the other driver 20% negligent. The plaintiffs were awarded damages for loss of companionship and mental anguish, and the decedent was awarded damages for her pain and mental anguish, and for funeral and burial expenses.

The appellate court explained that deciding whether to admit evidence was at the discretion of the lower court. The defendant argued, among other things, that the experiment that was recorded didn’t accurately depict accident conditions and shouldn’t have been admitted. She also argued it wasn’t necessary to teach the jury about the traffic-light cycle. She argued the evidence was prejudicial and confusing.

The appellate court reasoned that if an experiment happens outside of court and outside of the presence of opposing counsel, there needs to be a substantial similarity between the conditions of the experiment and the actual incident that gave rise to litigation. The conditions don’t need to be exactly the same, and if the differences are minor or explained to the jury, the trial court has discretion over whether the dissimilarity would confuse rather than help the jury.

In this case, the appellate court found that even if it was a mistake to admit the recordings, it was a harmless error because the recordings were cumulative of (proved the same thing as) other trial testimony. It affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If a loved one dies as a result of negligence, the San Antonio wrongful death attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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