First, the customary disclaimer: In what follows, I offer advice on writing accident reconstruction reports. This is philosophical advice based on the attitude that I adopt when I write reports. It’s also an attitude I think you should adopt when you write them. I should, of course, say that I am not an attorney! In fact, some attorneys will disagree with what I say. That's fine, because I'm not telling you what to do. I'm just proposing a mindset and an attitude that will make your reports better. You, of course, should ask your client the correct way for any particular jurisdiction to disclose your methods, your findings, and your opinions. Many jurisdictions don't require reports. I don't write reports for these jurisdictions, unless my client specifically requests it.
So, with all that said, here goes…
First, write your report for yourself. Even though a report is often required by the court, I still write my reports primarily for myself, not for the court or for the lawyers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m writing my report to articulate my opinions and their basis and to lay the foundation for my work being admitted. But, more fundamentally, I’m writing my report to understand the case better and to see what areas I need to put more thought into in formulating my opinions. I don’t think I’ve ever written a report that hasn’t shifted my thinking on a case. There are, of course, other ways to clarify your thinking on a case (share your analysis with another reconstructionist, for instance, and have them critique it), but writing a report often brings great clarity.
Second, be completely transparent and give a lot of detail. You might feel like you are making yourself more vulnerable in cross-examination by writing a long and detailed report and by speaking in transparent terms about your work. And, I suppose that's a possibility - particularly if your reasoning IS suspect. But, my goal in writing a long, detailed report is to force myself to articulate my reasoning and to ensure it's not suspect. When I force myself to really articulate my thought process, I benefit by gaining clarity and confidence in my findings. Forcing yourself to articulate a clear rationale for your conclusions and opinions will put you in a better position to testify clearly and convincingly.
Third, try to disprove your own opinions. Philosopher of Science, Karl Popper wrote that “whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practice this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves. Yet criticism will be fruitful only if we state our problem as clearly as we can and put our solution in a sufficiently definite form – a form in which it can be critically discussed.” Adopting this type of approach will make you a better accident reconstructionists and a better witness. Not only that, remember that helping the jury to discern the truth is what matters. Reaching conclusions that are true and correct matters. There’s a lot on the line for the people involved in the cases we work on. I know you know that. But it’s important not to entrench yourself in an opinion too early or without adequate evidence. Once you reach an opinion or conclusion, always be open to refining it or changing it in the face of new evidence or improved understanding of the same evidence. And certainly, before you issue a report, do everything you can to refute your own opinions and conclusions.
Make sure your conclusions follow from the work you have done. Structure your report so that a clear foundation is laid for each of your conclusions or opinions. I tend to describe my methodology chronologically and to cite literature supporting each step of the process.
Finally, after your report is out in the world, learn whatever you can from the way your conclusions, opinions, and methodology are criticized. Don't miss out on an opportunity to learn from criticisms of your work. Step back and be open to the possibility that some of the criticisms might be valid. See where your methodology went awry. Or, perhaps, use it as an opportunity to learn more about how attorneys think and consider how you might have communicated differently to make your method, conclusions, and opinions clearer.
Nathan is an accident reconstruction expert at Kineticorp. He is dedicated to mastering his craft, and for the past 20 years, he has dedicated himself to research and writing as a means of developing authentic expertise that provides real value to juries.