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Law: Accidents will happen: Sharon Wallach meets an expert witness

'SOLICITORS rarely tell me the result of a court case. But I shouldn't be interested in the outcome anyway,' says Jim Brooking, engineer, accident investigator and expert witness. 'It's not for me to make judgements on who is right or wrong.'

Mr Brooking works for E J Allen & Associates, consulting engineers based in Thornton Heath, Surrey. The company was set up four years ago by Ted Allen, who has 30 years' experience of investigating road traffic and industrial accidents. Mr Brooking joined in 1991 from Mercedes Benz (UK) Ltd, a useful background in terms of both technical knowledge and referrals of work.

E J Allen takes on work for the legal aid authorities, insurers and private individuals. Ted Allen stresses the importance of integrity. 'It would be all too easy for an engineer to feel he has to make a case for those paying him,' he says. 'But our first task is to assist the court. Obviously, we will put our best foot forward for our client, but we have a duty if he has no case to tell him so. The engineer's point of view has to be technical, not legal. We are involved with both criminal and civil proceedings, which demand different standards of proof. Our report has to be as unprejudiced as possible, given the limitation that we hear the story of one side only.'

Mr Brooking adds that he has been asked occasionally by instructing solicitors to leave information out of his report. 'But we can't do that because then the report would be unbalanced. We have to be seen to be impartial.'

The first action on receiving instructions is to visit the scene of the accident and reconstruct events. A site visit can take place months, or even years, after the incident. Mr Brooking describes one such job: a commercial vehicle had skidded on a bend and collided head on with a car, killing its driver. Following a police investigation, the van driver was convicted of several offences, including careless driving and using a vehicle with defective brakes.

The van's front disc pads had been recently changed by a garage which was joined by insurers as second defendants to a civil claim on behalf of the dead driver's estate.

Some two years after the accident, E J Allen tracked down the van, persuaded its new owner to release it for examination and carried out a reconstruction. 'We were able to establish that the police evidence on the condition of the brakes was inaccurate,' says Mr Brooking. As a result of E J Allen's evidence, the insurers dropped their action against the garage.

Another recent case concerned two drivers involved in a head-on accident, who were each convinced that the traffic lights in their own directions were green. It turned out that neither was lying - one factor Mr Brooking was able to establish was that a cycle lane light was misleadingly facing in the wrong direction.

E J Allen is one of 15 or 20 firms offering its brand of specialist service. According to Mr Brooking it is doing well. 'But we are only as good as our last job,' he says. In an attempt to stay at the forefront of technology, the company has invested in an American software programme, Edcrash, which reconstructs the technical elements of accidents, including speed, impact force, vehicle deformation and road position.

Edcrash, explains Mr Brooking, works on two basic principles:

vehicle-based co-ordinates and earth- based co-ordinates at the scene of the accidents. As yet, it cannot handle all types of accidents (and can only draw square trees). It is none the less invaluable, Mr Brooking says, as a working tool to calculate and cross- check. 'But at the end of the day, what counts in court are the engineer's own calculations.'

The company's engineering philosophy, says Ted Allen, is to 'test everything and believe nothing'. He adds: 'All the theory in the world is worth nothing unless you test it practically. The whole function of our work is to challenge not only what is said by both sides, but what we have said ourselves. At the end of the day, we have to stand up in court and face a barrister, and barristers are very clever people.'

Mr Brooking is calm in the face of what he calls barracking from barristers. 'I ignore it,' he says, 'because I can be confident that my report is carefully prepared and right.'

(Photograph omitted)