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BUMP AND BUILD AUTO IMPACTS
By William King, Jr.
When the Honda vehicle rear ended the Ford vehicle, both sustained only cosmetic bumper damage – yet the claimant driver has since alleged injuries to his neck and back. Liability on the Honda is clear, but if you have any experience in auto or bodily injury claims you know that the merit of the injury claim is suspect. The challenge, many times, is the subjective nature of the injury. The claimant says, “Doctor, it hurts…,” triggering treatment and resulting in medical bills.
This claim scenario is both costly and extremely common. So much so, that much of the industry refers to such claims as MIST (minor impact soft tissue). Of all the money paid for bodily injury claims in auto accidents 13% to 18% — or somewhere between 4.8 and 6.8 billion dollars (Insurance Research Council, 2008) — is attributed to fraud and claims buildup. And in today’s economic climate, these percentages and costs are most likely even higher.
Dollar figures like this mean that both the plaintiff counsel and the insurance industry need to understand this claim type and to create a defined approach for the best resolution. However, current approaches vary from software that requires adjusters to enter collision data to receive an injury or no injury report to implementing phraseology such as, “little to no damage, then little to no injury.” And many times there is a disconnect among the field examiners, the BI examiners, the SIU, the legal department and the reconstruction and biomechanical experts. All are aware of the case scenario, but they are not necessarily on the same page: they have no defined approach to ensure accurate findings, decisions and cost containment.
Whether from a defense or a plaintiff perspective, three critical components are necessary for success: photo-documentation, occupant kinematics and biomechanics. An understanding of these three components will ensure a comprehensive approach to analyzing the merit of these MIST claims, using the most appropriate experts and minimizing costs.
A MIST claim typically involves only minor damage to the involved vehicles. A popular misconception is that the probability of injury can be tied to the cost of repairs. While there may be some loose correlation between the two, this is not a hard and fast rule. For example, a sideswipe collision that may affect the entire side panels and cost thousands of dollars to repair is one of the most benign force generating collision types.
Therefore, when presented with a MIST claim, the first component of a proper analysis is seeing and evaluating the damage and understanding how the two vehicles came together. It is not feasible for claims professionals, attorneys or reconstruction experts to personally inspect the vehicle for every MIST claim presented. Requiring such inspections would be cost prohibitive. And besides, most vehicles are repaired fairly quickly, whereas bodily injury claims are often not tendered until months after the collision.
However, nearly all vehicle damage claims generate repair estimates that include photographs of the damage! This is the role of the field auto-appraiser or first responder. In fact, most collision reconstruction of minor impact claims is based on the repair estimates and photos of the involved vehicles. So the photos included in repair estimates are really the foundation from which all subsequent analyses are performed. In other words, we can all be highly trained collision reconstruction and biomechanical experts; but we are dead in the water without a good photograph!
That said, the industry could use a paradigm shift. Appraisers need to shift their focus from documenting that the damage exists to documenting the damage so that an analysis can be performed. There are easy steps to achieve this quality of documentation. Using a measuring device in a photo is good; using it properly is critical. A misplaced measuring device can actually do more harm than good.
For example, which best represents the damage height on the bumper, photo A or photo B? The answer is photo A. Since photo B doesn’t show the base of the ruler, we have no idea whether it is resting in a depression or giving an accurate above-ground level measurement. An experienced attorney will move to exclude photo B as evidence. But photo B could easily have been improved if the appraiser had just dropped to one knee and aligned his camera with the damage he was documenting.
A quality set of vehicle documentation photos should include all four corners, and the front, back and sides of the vehicle, without a measuring device. The frame should be filled with the vehicle. Measuring devices should be used to show the height of the striking components and the damage sustained. Close-up shots of damage are helpful only if they clearly show where the damage is located on the vehicle. Interior shots should show the seat configuration in relation to the steering wheel (photos C and D). Squared and aligned shots prevent distortion. A minimum of 25 shots is effective.
Over many years, this author has trained adjusters for major insurance companies across the country how to handle MIST claims. Typically the audience is made up of BI examiners and SIU investigators. This is good; but without the appraisers in on the program, what are we to analyze when the BI claim is tendered? OCCUPANT KINEMATICS Simply stated, occupant kinematics is the movement the occupant experiences when a given force is applied to the vehicle. Occupant kinematics answers the question, “If the vehicle was struck in the rear, side or front, what direction will the occupant move?” Occupant kinematics is based on Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia. This law states that each and every body persists in its state of rest or motion unless it is compelled to change as the result of outside forces acting upon it. So a vehicle occupant will continue in its motion of travel or position of rest until an outside force changes that.
Some helpful analysis techniques can be derived from this law. If the occupant is stopped at a light and his vehicle is struck from the rear, the striking vehicle is the outside force. The force of the impact causes the struck vehicle to move forward, and the occupant’s seat within the vehicle causes the occupant to move forward. Once the occupant begins to move with the seat and the seat back, the occupant’s head lags behind until it is contacted by the head restraint, which then causes the head to move forward as well. Without a properly adjusted head restraint, this collision dynamic can cause whiplash at the neck.
In vehicle collisions, because the vehicle will move first, and the body within the vehicle will remain at rest until an object or component makes it move along with the car (e.g., a seat or seatbelt), we can say that occupants within a vehicle will move in the direction of the force created by the impact. So, if the collision was a frontal impact, the occupant moves toward the force and toward the front components of the car — hopefully the seatbelt is the first component they hit. A strike to the right front will find the occupant moving toward the right front of the vehicle. With a heavy impact to the right front, would one expect the occupant to possibly strike the rearview mirror? Absent the seatbelt restricting the occupant from reaching the rearview mirror, the answer is absolutely.
If we know this truth, we can look at the damage sustained by the vehicle(s) and ascertain the direction of movement the occupant would have experienced. This exercise begins to shed light on the injury one would expect to occur. In addition, occupant kinematics can help identify red flags when comparing the statements on how the occupant claimed they moved within the vehicle and how you know they should move and the potential objects they may strike. Statements taken for MIST cases should always include how the occupant perceived their movement within the vehicle and estimates of speed at impact.
Occupant kinematics can determine what direction an occupant will move in a vehicle. However, to determine if the potential for injury exists, one must also know the force the occupant will experience moving in a known direction. Force is determined by the speed of impact with which one vehicle hits the other vehicle, the physical specs and weights of each vehicle, and the crush sustained by the collision. From that information, calculations are made to determine the change of velocity (delta V) of the struck vehicle and the g acceleration that the occupant experienced.
For example, a typical minor rear-end collision with similar model vehicles might be expressed as a 3- to 5-mile-per-hour impact speed, a 2.5-mile-per-hour delta V, and 1.2 g acceleration. With this information, a qualified collision reconstruction expert can compare these findings with the many studies involving human tolerance to low-speed collisions to see if these forces are at, below or above the threshold where injury potential may exist. The documents required for this level of analysis optimally should contain vehicle repair estimates, photos, police reports and statements and medical records if available.
The sciences of collision reconstruction and biomechanics along with many qualitative studies provide definitive conclusions on the injury potential in minor speed vehicle collisions.
Experts in collision reconstruction with specialized training and experience in MIST claims can reconstruct a collision to provide an opinion on damage consistency of impacting vehicles, speed at impact and the forces experienced by the vehicles and the occupants. Using studies of human tolerance to injury in minor vehicle collisions, the expert can then determine whether the collision is below, at or above the threshold where injury potential exists. Most cases only require this phase of analysis.
Collision reconstruction experts are the best choice to perform such analyses. It is interesting to note that there is no formal degree in collision reconstruction. Most collision reconstruction experts have come either from law enforcement or mechanical engineering, with continued education classes to learn the principles of reconstructing vehicle collisions. In addition, MIST analyses are a subset specialty, and not all collision reconstruction experts are qualified or possess the necessary education in the MIST arena.
Biomechanics is a hybrid science of mechanical engineering and human physiology. Specifically, biomechanics studies the human body, its muscles, tissues, tendons and skeletal structure, and how outside forces affect these. Much like a mechanical engineer can determine the mechanism required for component failure of a machine, a biomechanical engineer can determine the mechanism required for a specific tissue injury of the human body. Biomechanical experts usually possess a masters or doctorate degree. Biomechanics is used in the application of prosthetics, orthopedic surgery, and many other industries that have some relation with the human body. However, much of what we know in the low-speed injury causation discipline is a direct and inseparable relationship of the science of biomechanics and the many studies published over the last 40 years or so.
So by definition, there is no better expertise to evaluate injury causation. In fact, though MDs and other treatment physicians are obviously capable of diagnosing injury and prescribing treatment, their emphasis and training is not in determining how an injury occurred or if the injury is consistent with the vehicle collision dynamics. It is interesting to note how many treating physicians cite in their reports collision dynamics consistent with the injury they are treating even when they have not reviewed any documentation on the collision that is alleged to have occurred.
Some cases with unique circumstances require a biomechanical expert to work with the collision reconstruction expert. Since each case is different, it is fair to state that, in general, a biomechanical expert may be recommended when:
- The claimant has preexisting injuries or is predisposed to injury (e.g., recovering from back surgery, fused vertebrae, chronic disease) or is elderly
- The injury claimed is unique and not just soft tissue neck and back (e.g., temporomandibular joint dysfunction, carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome)
- The vehicle occupant was out of position (e.g., the claimant was not sitting aligned in the seat)
- The collision reconstruction expert recognizes unique collision dynamics (e.g., offset collision, or torque-inducing)
- The claimant’s physical status is not similar to that of the many human volunteers who participated in the studies.
The biomechanical expert will require a specific description of the injury claimed along with the medical records, statements (if any) and the initial collision reconstruction findings on speed and force.
For optimal handling of any MIST claim, the first order is proper documentation of the vehicle collision damage. This requires quality documentation for every minor collision claim since it is not always clear at the time of the appraisal which collision claim(s) will eventually present a BI claim.
The basics of occupant kinematics is critical but not complicated. The front-line examiners and BI professionals can do much to make appropriate decisions and to know when to bring in an expert for further analysis and confirmation using occupant kinematics.
Finally, the science of biomechanics is ultimately what has given experts the tool to make definitive conclusions on injury causation and to answer the critical question, “Did this collision cause the claimed injury?”
Bill King Impact General, Inc. Phone: 800-688-1628 714-532-1621 website: www.impactgeneral.com