Rob Crain Builds a Working Model of a Crane for Trial

Who builds a working model of a crane in a personal injury case? First, a lawyer who has the financial means to build one. But second, and more importantly, a lawyer with the drive to get the best possible result for his client.

In this Q&A with personal injury lawyer Rob Crain, Crain describes the case itself, his decision to build a working model of a crane for a trial exhibit, the process of having it built, and the effect it had on the case.

What happened?

What is now the Paragon Outlet Mall in Grand Prairie, Texas, was the site of a fatal accident in 2011 involving a former member of the U.S. Navy, a master welder, who was killed in a construction accident.

My client was part of the construction crew erecting the walls of a building. These were prefabricated walls that required a crane to lift the walls into place. When the crane was moving a wall panel into place, the panel collided with an adjacent, previously set, wall panel. The adjacent wall panel fell on top of my client. These walls weigh in excess of 70,000 lbs. He was crushed.

At the time, his family couldn't understand how this could happen considering the safety procedures which should be followed during such an operation. All we knew was something had gone terribly wrong.

Tell us about the crane. Did it malfunction? Was it operator error?

It was a standard construction crane, suitable for the operation, and in good working order. It didn't malfunction. Looking at the crane's position after the accident, it was clear that the boom (the long arm of the crane that the cable and hook hang from) wasn't positioned right. The boom was pulled too far back. As a result, the wall panel attached to the crane's hook was also out of place (because the boom was out of place). So it hit the adjacent wall. Also, witnesses said the wall was out of control when it was being lifted.

So, we had two questions: One, why was the boom in the wrong location? And two, why did the wall attached to the crane move in an out of control manner?

The crane operator blamed the workers on the ground for not giving him proper signals, and the crew on the ground blamed the crane operator for not operating the crane properly.

How did you come up with the idea to build a working model of the crane?

We often do things just like this, in many of our cases, to help jurors understand exactly how accidents happen. We often build computer animations with our experts. But in this case, a computer animation wasn't enough. The out-of-control movement of the wall panel attached to the crane had to be explained. Anybody can program a computer animation to show the panel moving out of control. But that doesn't prove anything. By building a model - a scale-model replication of the entire accident scene, in fact - the jury could see exactly why the accident happened.

Describe the process for having it built. Were you pleased with how it came out?

We were extremely pleased with the end product.

We first started by trying to find a model crane we could buy. That was the plan. Then we'd build the walls and other surroundings to recreate the accident site. But we quickly realized we would need every dimension, weight, and location of the crane and its rigging exactly in proportion to all the other elements involved in this accident in order to recreate what happened.

So we went out and found a highly experienced expert, a model builder, and gave him all the documents, photographs, and technical information he needed to build the crane and surrounding work site. We also gave him highly technical scanning data we acquired right from the scene, using lasers and other mapping equipment, shortly after the accident.

The end product was a replica of the crane, its rigging, and even the surrounding area. The replica proportionally matched the precise weights, dimensions, and locations of those elements at the time of the accident.

And the best part?

The model was powered and fully functional, moving just like a crane would move, and just how it did move in the accident.

Generally speaking, we could now demonstrate to jurors how the center of gravity was thrown off. The weight and influence of the rigging materials, in combination with the boom being pulled too far back, threw the wall panel out of control.

This was overlooked by experts on the defense when coming up with their opinions.

I understand there was a resolution of this case right before trial. Did the crane have an effect on the resolution?

As with many large cases, I cannot discuss the specifics about the resolution of this case, but I can tell you that the impact of having a physical replica of an accident scene like this is tremendous.

One, there's the potential to sway jurors with something they can see and feel and watch in action. Two, the model helped our experts firm up their opinions and walk into court confident that their opinions were accurate and they were on the right side of the truth.

There is no doubt that all who watched the model in action were impressed and believed they were watching an accurate re-enactment of what happened on that tragic day. More importantly, my clients could see and understand exactly what happened to their loved one, why it happened, and knew their efforts were helping to prevent this from happening to somebody else.

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