Boat Accident Expert Determines True Cause of Collision

I had a case recently where I used an out-of-state boat accident reconstructionist.  I don’t blog about my own cases too often, but the case was unusual enough that it is probably worth reflecting on.  The boat accident expert we used was Phillip Odom of H2O Investigations, and he was helpful in resolving this case.

In the U.S., boat death fatalities only number about 700 per year, so there just aren’t many experts on boat accident reconstruction.  I spent a couple of days on my hunt for an expert, and did a lot of research.  I stumbled upon one lawyer’s website  which warned: “What you don’t know about motor vehicle or boat accident reconstruction can get you into a lot of trouble in court.”

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A photo of a boat accident experiment staged by Phil Odom for the State of California

We know because we have been instrumental in getting a lot of “experts” disqualified or voluntarily withdrawn.”  The article sites a federal case from the 5th Circuit that spells out the criteria the courts use in determining whether an individual is qualified to be a boat “accident reconstructionist”.  There is a lot more than simply taking a class in accident reconstruction.  Courts will look to the training and experience, any experiments a person has conducted, and whether he or she has taught any classes on accident reconstruction.  The boat accident expert we found, Phil Odom, used to teach boat accident reconstruction for the State of California, and you can see from his website that he has conducted dozens of scientific experiments to back up his training.  Phil Odom has conducted over 70 different experiments with boat collisions, and was the operator of the vessel during the tests.  Many of these tests were conducted between 2006 and 2008, and California does not conduct such tests today.

The State's accident investigator wrote: "Upon further and closer inspection of the vessel I found that there was no physical damage to the two Honda motors attached to the rear of the vessel, the lower units, the propellers, or skegs." As this photo depicts, there was damage to the engine, and the damage was indicative of a foreign object being stuck in the steering.

Like a lot of boat accident experts, he got his start in the early years of his career investigating motor vehicle fatalities, which are of course much more common.  He was thorough as a vehicle accident investigator and won awards from such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.  In the case where I used him, we flew him up to examine the boat in question a couple of months prior to trial.  He noticed some damage done to the engine that was indicative of a vessel that had something caught in the steering, thus corroborating the defendant.  The damage was not immediately apparent to everyone, and even the prosecutor’s accident investigator failed to notice this crucial damage.  As with motor vehicle accident reconstruction, boat experts must be knowledge about the applicable mathematical formulas required to reconstruct what occurred.  During our trial the prosecutor’s accident investigator was asked to come down to the easel to explain to the jury how to convert feet-per-second to miles-per-hour and yet was unable to do so.

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Accident Reconstructionist Phil Odom analyzing GPS data with an attorney via Skype

The accident investigator hired by the prosecutor did not notice the damage to the engine, and wrote in his report that the motors were undamaged.  When Phil Odom explained to the jury the damage to the motor, he explained that damage to metal must be inspected closely because you can often see in what direction the metal was forced or twisted.  In the case I did, I actually printed out enlarged photographs to each juror so that they could follow along.  Phil Odom also testified on the subject of occupant kinematics, which is the study of the positioning of the bodies in the vessel at the time of the collision.  Generally speaking, the injuries to the human occupants follow the direction of force.  In this case, the vessel struck a fixed barrier in the front right-hand corner.  The prosecutor’s investigator was not permitted to testify as to the subject of occupant kinematics due to his insufficient experience.

There were other issues in the case that assisted the defense, in that the defendant was not intoxicated, but Mr. Odom’s discovery of the steering jam was important to our defense.  You might expect that a witness such as Phil Odom would be outside a defendant’s price range, but in this case our expert was actually about the same price as the state’s investigator who had never testified as an expert before on boat accident reconstruction.  We had to fly in Phil Odom from Arizona to inspect the boat and again to testify, but it was worth it.  The lawyers that I talked to prior to hiring him described Phil Odom as one of the top three boat accident experts in the country.  After my trial, I spoke to the jurors and I know they were impressed by his work.

Post by Steve Graham

3 Responses to “Boat Accident Expert Determines True Cause of Collision”

  • Forrest:

    I saw a little bit of this case, and it was pretty much as you described it Graham. That Phil Odom knows his stuff.

  • O'Brian:

    What was the name of the State’s expert who testified for them?

  • Forrest:

    The state’s “expert” was Thomas Walker who is a patrolman with the Spokane Sheriff’s office. I didn’t see his testimony, but I heard Tom Walker didn’t exactly dazzle the courtroom with his boat know how. I think he served in the marine unit for the Sheriff for a while but investigating boat crashes and reconstruction accidents is a whole different ball game. He had never been recognized as an expert in boat accidents ever before, and wasn’t able to say much in this case.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking:
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