Wheels of Fortune

Daytime-television viewers know Frank Azar as the fighting attorney who can retrieve the insurance settlement an automobile-accident victim deserves. His TV ads feature the crumpled remains of a car crash and an alchemic pledge: "Turn this wreck...into this check!"

But today the promise has proven false, and Azar is furious. A large and disheveled-looking man whose white shirts can pull untucked during agitated cross-examinations, Azar has just wasted his time and talents on an unappreciative six-person Brighton jury, which has failed to recognize the extent of the painful back and neck injuries his client suffered in a minor traffic crash. "The jury came back and gave us a big fucking zero," he fumes. "I can't believe they believed that son of a bitch."

That would be a young, rock-chinned engineer named Jerry Ogden, whose specialty is reconstructing traffic accidents--a car-crash Columbo, engineering-nerd division. After numerous complex calculations and precise measurements, Ogden informed the jury confidently, he had reached the unassailable conclusion that, at the speed she was driving--5.4 to 6 miles per hour--Azar's client could not possibly have been hurt. As a point of reference, Ogden suggested that people experience approximately the same force when they jump rope. Or lean against a wall from six inches away.

The jury bought it.
Azar, however, remains unawed by Ogden's expertise. In fact, he is more than willing to confide his personal opinion of Ogden, which is negative.

"He's the slickest, slimiest witness I've ever been around," Azar snarls, warming up. "He's like a...a...car salesman. The insurance company didn't even bother calling a physician in this case. This guy's a real piece of shit. He's a pimp."

Ogden, who is fast gaining a local reputation as a very popular and effective witness in slow-motion car-wreck cases--which he works almost exclusively for insurance companies--is not perturbed. "This is a science," he says calmly. "What I do is a very pure application of scientific principles. I believe in it." Lawyers, he adds, don't like to hear his conclusions because they cost the attorneys their contingency fees.

For something based on the immutable laws of mathematics and physics, though, the science of car-crash reconstruction has a lot of gray area. Some of Ogden's own research into car accidents, for instance, has been conducted using a local amusement park's bumper cars--hardly a pristine laboratory, indignant plaintiff's attorneys point out. His court testimony has also generated excited dissent among other engineers with their own claims to scientific purity.

"Mr. Ogden's position that you can't get hurt in low-speed crashes is mistaken," argues Raymond Smith, a former Colorado state trooper turned accident reconstructionist. "We're not going to trash the opposition. But he's plain wrong."

"I've seen people killed in accidents under 5 miles per hour," concedes a local underwriter. "This old man was driving across the Broadway overpass from downtown, and he went straight into a telephone pole. He was going so slow it barely did any damage to his car. But his wing window was open, so when his head was knocked forward it knifed directly into his head."

The point? "Weird things can happen," he says. "Even at slow speeds."
The opinions of Ogden and his colleagues are worth literally billions of dollars. The insurance industry says the number of "unverifiable" injuries reported by accident victims is soaring disproportionately to the number of car crashes; many of the claims are for back and neck pain suffered as the result of slow-motion crashes--those occurring at less than 8 miles per hour.

In response, insurers have discovered a new weapon to fight what they consider dubious claims. Once dependent on physicians who would testify as to an injury "victim's" good health, underwriters are increasingly relying on accident-reconstruction engineers to convince juries that some collision victims could not possibly be as injured as they claim.

Many attorneys are only now waking up to the threat to their business. "Now insurance companies are hiring these engineers to come in and say things they're not qualified to say so that people who truly deserve compensation don't get it," says Jim Leventhal, a busy personal-injury lawyer in Denver. "They're being paid a fortune to come in and say injuries couldn't happen. It's an industry for them."

Adds Natalie Brown, a Denver attorney who represents many car-accident victims, "These guys are the new courtroom money barons of the Nineties."

But is what they do really science?
Soon after he got behind the wheel of an automobile, the first driver crashed. Onlookers wondered why, thus laying the philosophical foundation for the science of modern accident investigation. The practical applications, however, took some time to catch up. The foreword to the eighth edition (1986) of the classic Traffic-Accident Investigation Manual outlines the history:

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer