Computer Generated Animation in the Courtroom

BY David H Margol

Relevant and accurate computer generated animation can be an extremely helpful tool in the courtroom. The primary purpose of such a tool should be an educational one. In order to determine whether that purpose is likely to be fulfilled two questions must be asked and answered. First, is the computer generated animation relevant? If the answer is yes, the next question becomes; will the computer generated animation assist the trier of fact in making determinations regarding key issues of fact?

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 401, all relevant evidence is admissible. “Relevant evidence” is defined as evidence tending to make a fact of consequence more probable or less probable. Fed.R.Evid. 402. Animation need not be identical to the actual events that took place in order to be relevant. Animations designed to simulate actual events may be admissible if they are substantially similar to the events at issue, although they need not be identical. Hinkle v. Clarksburg, 81 F.3d 416, 425 (4th Cir. 1996); B.N.S.F. R.R. Co. v. LaFarge Southwest, Inc., No. 06-1076, 2009 WL 4279843 at *16 (D.N.M. Feb. 12, 2009).

Civil litigators have used computer generated animation in the courtroom for years in order to reconstruct accidents, including automobile and truck accidents, aircraft collisions, construction equipment accidents, and industrial accidents, as well as in patent litigation. See State v. Pierce: Will Florida Courts Ride the Wave of the Future and Allow Computer Animations in Criminal Trials? 19 Nova L.Rev. 371, 373-77 (1994)(citing David W. Muir, Debunking the Myths about Computer Animation, in Securities Litigation 1992, at 591, 596-97 (PLI Litig. & Admin. Practice Course Handbook Series No. 444)). Furthermore, in Pierce v. State, 718 So.2d 806 (Fla. 4th DCA, 1997), the court stated that “as demonstrative aids to illustrate and explain testimony of witnesses to the fact finder, such exhibits have been useful.” Id. at 808. In Pierce, the Fourth District held that the trial court’s decision to allow the computer generated animation to be shown to the jury as a demonstrative exhibit illustrating the reconstruction of the motor vehicle accident was proper. Id. at 810. The animation was admitted as demonstrative evidence in order to allow the jury to understand the detective’s testimony regarding the motor vehicle collision—the same reason computer generated animation is offered in many other cases.

Computer simulations which reconstruct a collision are essentially modern versions of collision reenactments, which courts throughout Florida have consistently recognized as admissible. VITT v. Ryder Truck Rentals, Inc., 340 So.2d 962 (Fla. 3rd DCA, 1976); (rehearing denied Jan. 6, 1977).  Due to the fact that reenactments can be both dangerous and extremely costly, computer animation offers the same benefit to the jury without the physical risk and cost associated with physically recreating the event. Furthermore, courts have analogized this type of evidence to charts or diagrams. People v. McHugh, 124 Misc.2d 559, 476 N.Y.S.2d 721 (N.Y.Sup., 1984). In McHugh, the court addressed the issue in the context of a criminal defendant attempting to introduce a computer re-enactment of his version of the accident. The court stated:

“A computer is not a gimmick and the court should not be shy about its use, when proper. Computers are simply mechanical tools-receiving information and acting on instructions at lightning speed. When the results are useful, they should be accepted, when confusing, they should be rejected. What is important is that the presentation be relevant to a possible defense, that it fairly and accurately reflect the oral testimony offered and that it be an aid to the jury's understanding of the issue.” Id. at 722-723.

The computer generated animation used in most cases is drawn from the sworn testimony of eye witnesses.  As such, this type of animation serves an important purpose in a courtroom setting. That purpose is to educate the jury with respect to key issues of material fact.


*The foregoing is not intended to be legal advice and should not be construed as such.