The road less traveled: Often ignored sources of information about the accident and your client’s Injuriesby John D. Rowell (Cheong, Denove, Rowell, Bennett & Karns)
Red light cameras
This is a relatively new area of potential information gathering. For good or bad, the so-called “red light camera” programs are proliferating. These cameras monitor both intersections and approaches to intersections. As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times points out, “red light cameras” are moneymakers for most jurisdictions. (Connell, R,, Red light camera roulette: LA. is money loser, Culver City rakes it in, Los Angeles Times (June 6, 2008).) The chart below shows, as of May 2008, the different jurisdictions in Los Angeles County that have red light camera programs, die number of intersections monitored, and the number of approaches monitored.
Jurisdiction Intersections Monitored Approaches Monitored
Culver City 12 20
Los Angeles 32 63
MTA 32 44
Inglewood 13 21
West Hollywood 8 24
Montebello 3 5
Baldwin Park 5 7
Gardena 6 10
South Gate 7 14
Santa Clarita 8 11
Hawthorne 4 7
Long Beach 5 10
Lancaster 4 7
Walnut 1 2
Commerce 4 8
Pasadena 3 7
L.A. County 8 18
Cerritos 3 6
Whittier 2 4
Covina 3 6
Beverly Hills 2 8
Lynwood 1 1
El Monte 2 8
Maywood 1 8
Glendale 3 3
These systems are located in areas of heavy traffic at “dangerous” intersections. If you have an intersection-collision case, it is always a good idea to check with the particular jurisdiction to see whether or not the intersection happens to have been part of their red light program.
From a practical standpoint, serving a subpoena on the jurisdiction to obtain copies of any photographs taken during a particular time period is likely to garner minimum results. It is generally better to call the police department of the particular jurisdiction, ask for the person in charge of photo-tickets and find out if the intersection in question was monitored. If so, you can usually get a callback with information as to whether or not any photo-tickets were issued during the pertinent time period. The next step would be a person-most-qualified (PMQ) deposition, coupled with a document request for photographs and tickets issued during a very discrete window of time.
Assuming you are able to obtain relevant information (including, by the way, the fact that no red light photo was taken during the time of your accident), you may wish to investigate to determine which contractor has been employed to install and operate the system. In Los Angeles, the contractor is Nester Traffic Systems. Other jurisdictions use a company called Redflex. A few minutes on the telephone will identify the contractor for you. You can also specify in your PMQ notice that the person to be produced by the City also be the person most qualified to talk about the contractor, the equipment, and operation of the equipment. As might be expected, such evidence is extremely persuasive, if not conclusive.
Emergency response personnel
We all know dial police reports are prepared for significant traffic accidents. It would be a rare auto case indeed where any of us would feel comfortable without having a copy. Similarly, emergency room records are always obtained. But there is much more.
When fire department paramedics respond to an accident, the police report may or may not list the station numbers and/or unit number. As might be expected, paramedics create their own paperwork and patient-care reports. These forms will include a description of the accident, usually taken from the patient or others in the vicinity. Their fire station will have a log with a brief description of the accident. The paramedics and/or the ambulance will be in contact with their base hospital by radio. Tapes are made of these contacts. The tapes are retained for a short period. Currently, most hospitals in the Los Angeles area keep these tapes for six months or less.
This material will give you at least accurate times. Usually, a brief description of the accident is included in the paramedic paperwork as well as the station log; this paperwork will normally include a statement that the patient was or was not using a seat belt.
The tapes of conversations between the paramedics, ambulance and base hospital can be quite dramatic in an understated way.
* Air ambulance
If your client was taken by air ambulance to a hospital, there may be a transcript of messages (as well as tapes) with times and call signs. The onboard nurse will have filled out forms (usually completed when they arrive at the hospital). There will be some handwritten entries, but most will be electronic, entered on a portable computer. A printout will give you entries for patient information, flight information, history, vitals, examination and treatment. The history will include a description of the accident, often inaccurate.
For example, in one case, in which an SUV was traveling at 70 mph eastbound in the fast lane on the Palmdale Freeway; was sideswiped; crashed into the center barrier; then cut across all traffic lanes and over an embankment; the entry describing the accident was “MVA, rollover, ejected, initial speed 55, no protective devices used.” In fact, the evidence showed the client had to be extracted from the front seat of the vehicle; his seat belt was in use; there was no rollover; and the speed as mentioned was 70 mph. No reference to the other vehicle appeared anywhere in the printout.
If you have timing issues, these forms will be helpful. The electronic form includes time the call was received, dispatch time, arrival time, time of arrival at the patient, scene departure time, and the arrival time at destination. Entries for a relatively comprehensive secondary survey are also included. The secondary survey will include assessments of the head, face, left eye, right eye, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, GI, left arm, left hand, right arm, right hand, left leg, left foot, right leg, right foot, back and central nervous system. Glasgow Coma Scores are also entered to correspond with the in flight examinations.
Be careful of these forms. They are computer-generated and some (Mercy Air, for example) have set-up default entries. Others are set so that the flight nurse can copy the entries from the previous call. This can be extremely important. In one case, a quadriplegic was airlifted from a rollover outside of Las Vegas by a Mercy Air helicopter ambulance. According to the electronic record of the flight nurse’s secondary survey, every area was “assessed with no abnormalities.” Based on these entries, she testified that the client was awake, responsive, aware of her surroundings, conversational and had no neurological deficits! According to the flight nurse, the patient’s extremities responded to touch and there were no indications of swelling or bruising on her neck or throat.
However, the flight nurse did not speak Spanish which made conversation with the client unlikely, since she only spoke Spanish. The flight nurse became quite embarrassed when asked how it was that the nurse had checked the neck for swelling and bruising when a collar had been placed on the patient’s neck before the air ambulance arrived and never removed. The same questions were asked about the back examination as the patient was strapped to a board, face up. There was some resistance to the suggestion that the nurse had not done the assessments reflected on the forms. Then the nurse was asked to explain how a patient who was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of quadriplegia could have been neurologically intact and responsive when examined in the air ambulance (according to the form). She was also advised that the on-scene paramedics had diagnosed paralysis. At that point, the nurse offered the testimony of the “program defaults.”
Basic information will be included in the flight officer’s handwritten notes. Also in the air ambulance file, (but not in the hospital file), will be a medical necessity/emergency certification form filled out by the physician at the hospital (usually at the helipad). Depending upon the severity of injury, the patient may have completed a consent form as well.
It is important to obtain these records. If your client was transported by air ambulance, the hospital records can help establish the severity of the injury.
The air ambulance records will contain inaccurate descriptions of the accident; sometimes get seat-belt use wrong; and may seem to minimize injuries. However, they are fertile ground for the defense, and obtaining this information at the outset of your case can help you defuse 01 eliminate problems. On the other hand, establishing a traumatic brain injury tc the jury’s satisfaction is considerably easier if there is a record of symptoms exhibited to the flight nurse on the way to the hospital.
* Ground ambulance
The standard California Traffic Collision Report (TCR) form will identify, on page three, who transported an injured party and the location to which they were transported. The information is normally self-explanatory. The same area of the TCR will include the entries identifying fire department paramedics (by unit or badge number). Fire department responsibility is geographical. A few calls to the local police or fire department will identify the station which would respond, based upon the site of the accident.
If the patient/client was transferred via an LAFD vehicle, there will be a city record which includes a description of the accident. The emergency medical services billing unit will provide an invoice and an incident report. The typed incident report will include the engine numbers, employee numbers, times and location. It will also include a description of the accident under “Comments;” and a section on vital signs, medical history, and treatment. The comments can be quite detailed. For example, in one non-auto case, die incident information comments read:
FT 75 Y/O FOUND LAYING SUPINE ON STEPS ON STEPS PT FELL APPROX 15 AND STEPS C/O LT SHOULDER PAIN A/OX3 GCS 465=15 NO CP NO SOB +TRAUMA UNK SIZE LAC LT TO BACK OF HEAD OBVIOUS FX LT SHOUL-DER/ELBOWLAC RT FINGERS PERFUSED BLEEDING FROM WOUNDS +PMS ALL 4 EXT BEFORE AND AFTER C-SPINE N KO LUNGS CLEAR + ETOH 4-5 DRINKS TRANSP 818TRAUMA H-HRT A-NON M-COMUSIN
If you can’t interpret this entry, you are not alone. Fortunately, most paramedics and emergency medical technicians can do that job for you. This service is usually provided in return for a fee. Nonetheless, even a neophyte reading the above paragraph for the first time will cringe at the mention of “4-5 drinks” in a slip and tall case.
Private ambulance records are more detailed than Los Angeles Fire Department incident information records. For example, the American Medical Response forms give the names and numbers of all personnel and much of the same information as the air ambulance forms. Unlike the air ambulance, the ground ambulance forms are filled out by hand. While the risk of default entries is thus eliminated, deciphering the handwriting and translating the entries can be an exercise in frustration. However, ambulance paramedics do not reach the levels of illegibility demonstrated by doctors and lawyers.
Ambulance paramedics also tend to offer descriptions of accidents which are beyond what even a percipient witness could offer. In one multi-vehicle accident hi which a pickup rolled over, the AMR form describes the accident as, “full size pickup rollover approximately 3 times.” Of course, the ambulance driver had no idea how many times the pickup had rolled and was repeating something someone said at the scene. The accident reconstruction by both plaintiff and defendant’s experts concluded there had been only one roll.
If you have a case where the vehicle was towed from the accident scene, page one of the Traffic Collision Report will identify who ordered the tow, and if the officer did, the company which towed the vehicle. Towing company records are sketchy. However, the actual towing sheets will have a general description of the accident and may include some comment about your client or the other driver.
Photographs and beyond
In the top left hand comer of the first page of the standard California Traffic Collision Report will be a notation of the identity of any police officer who took photographs of the accident scene. These can be obtained through the police department, usually shortly after the TCR is available. Most photographs are now taken by digital cameras. You can and should get digital copies of the photograph files from the police agency. It’s always fun to examine the opposing accident reconstructionist who has been given only Xerox copies of photographs, when you have the electronic versions.
More and more agencies are using electronic surveying equipment to generate accident diagrams. The Arizona Department of Public Service (analogous to our Highway Patrol) uses a system which integrates with the Global Positioning System. This information, both in raw form and as incorporated into the program used to generate the accident scene diagram, is available on disk. Some local Southern California agencies use the same type of equipment. Less sophisticated programs are used by the California Highway Patrol to create computer-generated accident diagrams. With a little work, you can get a copy of the data set used to generate the accident diagram, as well as the actual computer file of the accident diagram. \bur accident reconstructionist will take you out to lunch if you give her a copy of these files. You may also save yourself and your client substantial costs (not counting the free lunch).
Digital 911 call recordings are available but not kept for long periods. Such calls are often made by passing motorists Many times these witnesses either do not stop or leave the scene before they are identified on the police report. Such witnesses are particularly important as they are most likely to have actually seen the accident. The recordings will help you identify potential witnesses (usually by name and phone number) and will include a description of the accident by a percipient witness.
The careful practitioner will avail himself/herself of the opportunity to obtain evidence from all sources. We know how important it is to have all of this material, especially that which can be used by the defense. Obtaining this information early in the case will greatly increase one’s ability to exclude inaccurate and sometimes devastating record entries. In every case, obtaining this information will enable the practitioner to more clearly evaluate die case and obtain a recovery commensurate with the client’s loss.