Re-evaluating Standards for Admissibility of Photographs of Vehicular Collisions

Litigation Practice Group

By Litigation Practice Group

In Illinois, historically, two predominating schools of thought regarding the admissibility of photographs of vehicular collisions have existed. The first school of thought, Baraniak v. Krauby, holds that when using photos to correlate vehicular damage to injuries, expert testimony is always necessary. The second school of thought, Fronabarger v. Burns, holds that vehicular collision photographs are admissible if the jury can properly relate the vehicular damage depicted in the photos to the injuries without the aid of an expert. In 2008, the Fronabarger court declined to follow the rigid rule from Baraniak.

In the 2019 case of Peach v. McGovern, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois addressed this contentious issue once again. Here, the plaintiff and the defendant were involved in a car accident where the defendant rear-ended the plaintiff. The defendant claims that she was at a full stop behind the plaintiff, and she rolled into the plaintiff, “tapping” his truck, when she accidentally let her foot off the brake. The plaintiff contends that the defendant “plowed” into him at a speed of 20-30 miles per hour. After the accident, the plaintiff began experiencing severe neck issues, incurring over $23,000 in medical expenses.

accident with injuriesAt trial, plaintiff presented his pain management specialist as an expert witness, who opined that the plaintiff’s neck injuries were consistent with having been rear-ended in a motor vehicle collision, and even a very low speed collision could have caused this damage. Though the plaintiff had a degenerative disc condition, the expert testified that the plaintiff’s injuries were consistent with a sudden impact rather than the degenerative condition. The defendant did not present any expert witnesses, instead using the photographs depicting minimal damage to both vehicles in her closing arguments to argue that the plaintiff exaggerated the impact of the collision in order to relate his injuries to the collision.

At the trial court level, the court directed a verdict for the plaintiff on negligence, but the jury found for the defendant on causation and damages and awarded the plaintiff zero damages. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to allow the defendant to use the photographs to illustrate causation absent any expert testimony.

The Illinois Court of Appeals adopted the Baraniak reasoning that expert testimony is always necessary when using photos to correlate vehicular damage to injuries. Typically, cases involving rear-end collisions followed the Fronabarger analysis, allowing photographic evidence of vehicular collisions when expert testimony was unnecessary. The Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision in Peach, holding that the photographs would only be admissible when supplemented with expert testimony explaining the correlation of the vehicular damage to the plaintiff’s neck injuries.

The defendant appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the Fronabarger school of thought. The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the reasoning in Baraniak, arguing that it relied on faulty reasoning and inapplicable case law. Baraniak relied on Voykin v. Estate of DeBoer for the rule that expert testimony is necessary to supplement photographs because jurors would be unable to accurately assess the correlation without expert assistance. The Illinois Supreme Court differentiated Baraniak’s facts from Voykin’s facts, noting that the issue in Voykin was whether or not expert testimony was necessary to demonstrate why a plaintiff’s prior injury was relevant to causation, in comparison to Baraniak which did not involve any prior injuries, thus rendering the application of Voykin’s analysis improper.

The Illinois Supreme Court held that the trial court in Peach properly allowed photographic evidence of the vehicular collision absent expert testimony because jurors would be able to understand the evidence without expert testimony. Additionally, the Illinois Supreme Court likened photographic evidence to witness testimony, noting that a witness’s description of the accident would be admissible, so photographs of the accident should also be admissible, and “complete certainty” is not necessary for evidence to be admissible. This follows the general standard for expert testimony: that the testimony would aid or assist the jury in understanding some material fact.

The intent behind the Illinois Supreme Court’s holding is to alleviate unnecessary financial burdens on the discovery and trial process. The Illinois Supreme Court is wary of requiring experts that may be cost prohibitive on certain parties. The Illinois Supreme Court decided that the value of expedited and efficient trials outweighed the Court of Appeal’s concerns that allowing photographic evidence of vehicular collisions would “allow parties to accomplish indirectly what the courts have already determined is improper absent expert testimony, i.e., to argue or even imply that there is a correlation between the extent of vehicular damage and the extent of a person’s injuries caused by an accident.”

In the end, the Illinois Supreme Court has chosen to reinforce the goal of expert testimony by allowing photographs of vehicular collision when the photographs may be understood using common sense and the jury would not need an expert’s testimony to explain the implications of the photographs.

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