Vehicle Claims Forensic Investigations

Vehicle insurance can cover a wide variety of claims including: personal injury, product liability, third-party damage to property, accidental damage, theft and fraud. In reality, the vast majority of insurance claims are settled without the need for any detailed forensic engineering involvement either because there is no engineering aspect to the claim or the insurance market has had to streamline its claims processes as a result of the significant number of claims each year. In 2016, 767,000 private car claims were settled in Q1 alone, which is an 8% increase compared to last quarter [1]. There are however certain instances where an engineering evaluation may prove invaluable when assessing claims, examples of these circumstances include:

  • High-value equipment, including; prestige vehicles, plant and agricultural equipment, cargo, property,
  • Product liability, and
  • Fraudulent claims.

Engineering Analysis

Engineering analysis relates to the investigation of engineering components both electrical and mechanical to determine the root cause of failure and whether its failure had contributed to the loss.

For vehicles in particular, components that are commonly investigated are those that form the primary safety function, i.e. steering, suspension, braking for obvious reasons. What is not obvious is the engineering complexity behind even the most simple of components such as a bolt, be its design, material, manufacturer, its significance to the integrity of the machine it is fitted to and the wider issue of vehicle safety.

As an example, an engineering spline as shown in the figure below is used to link two parts together and to transmit a torque (a rotating force). As such this component is a feature of many vehicle sub-assemblies such as; steering racks, gearboxes and suspensions. Consequently, in theory the failure of this component could result in a collision occurring. Also as shown in the figure below, the individual splines have been shown to have been significantly distorted and as such would not transmit the required torque. Consequently, an engineering analysis will enable us to determine why determine this component has failed.

Engineering techniques used in the analysis will invariably include a visual inspection of the component and review of the engineering design and materials. This will often lead to other forms of analysis including;

  • Non-destructive testing; radiography, magnetic particle inspection to determine any defects such as cracks or porosity.
  • Metallographic examination; to determine if the microstructure is consistent with its specification.
  • Chemical analysis; to determine material composition.
  • Mechanical testing; to determine material performance such as strength.

In addition to conducting the engineering analysis, it is vital that other circumstantial evidence is also examined which could have significant bearing on the conclusions. This may include; witness evidence, scene photographs, damage to other components.


Other Areas of Forensic Investigation

The following provides a summary of other typical forensic engineering areas which can be used in vehicle claims.

Fire Investigation

A fire investigation will aim to determine the cause and origin of the fire. Often subsequent engineering analysis as discussed above is required to examine suspect parts to determine the root cause of the failure.

Biomechanics

For the investigation of personal or third-party injury claims, a biomechanical investigation may be required to determine whether or not the nature and magnitude of forces involved in a collision relate to the injury sustained. Scene attendance is not usually required for these types of investigations since images of vehicle damage and an associated medical report can be used to assess the consistency of injury.

Accident reconstruction

The main aim of an accident reconstruction investigation is to use scientific principles to determine causation and contributing factors that may have led to a collision.  For this, various techniques can be employed including; using the laws of physics to determine vehicle speeds assessed from road markings and vehicle damage and the interrogation of vehicle computer units. 

Digital Forensics

In relation to vehicle claims, digital forensics is often used to determine whether or not the driver was distracted at the time of the incident. Mobile phones are currently one of the key devices from which data can be extracted.

Depending on the nature of the claim not all of the above techniques will require a site inspection and can be conducted as a desktop study review.

Alan Chung is a Forensic Engineer with Envista Forensics Mechanical and Electrical Division. He previously worked with the UK Government Forensic Science Service within its Accident Investigation Group which was involved in solving mechanical failures including fatal road traffic collisions. He has over 20 years’ experience of conducting failure analysis and fitness for service studies of mechanical equipment.

[1] Source: Association of British Insurers.

0