Can Computer Animation be Inadmissible During Trial?

“Proponents of animations should craft them as early as possible in their preparation for trial so that they are ready to tackle objections from opposing counsel.” - Webster and Bourne III (2016)

Attorneys can use computer animation to turn witnesses’ spoken evidence into visual representations that cognitively transport jurors to the scene or an event a witness is trying to explain in a trial. It has long been accepted as a reliable means of communicating technical terms and events as long as the expert’s testimony indicates that the processes and calculations underlying the reconstruction or simulation are accurate. Webster and Bourne III(2016) in their Defense Counsel Journal publication explained that “generally, animations are admissible if the usual foundational requirements applicable to other forms of demonstrative exhibits are met. Usually, this means that the animation must be relevant, its probative value must outweigh its potential for unfair prejudice or confusion, and it is supported by testimony establishing that it accurately depicts that which it purports to depict.”

However, there have been cases where they are rejected and considered inadmissible by a court. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed that a computer animation during a court trial can be deemed inadmissible and removed by judicial instruction. It further provided an explanation on computer-generated graphics in court stating that “the extreme vividness and persuasiveness of motion pictures is a two-edged sword. If the film does not portray original facts in controversy, but rather represents a staged reproduction of one party’s version of those facts, the danger that the jury may confuse art with reality is particularly great.”

In the case of Clark v. Cantrell, the use of video animation was considered inadmissible by the trial court. Cantrell attempted to introduce a computer-generated animation of the accident through her expert witness and it was rejected by the trial court. The trial judge at The Supreme Court of South Carolina rendered the animation inadmissible stating that it did not accurately reflect the testimony of the proponent and her expert witness.

Webster and Bourne III (2016) explained that “the most common objection to computer-generated evidence seems to be that the proponent of the evidence failed to disclose it within a reasonable time before trial. A ‘‘reasonable time’’ has been defined as enough time to allow the opposing party to inspect the evidence and determine possible objections, and two weeks prior to trial has been held to be a sufficiently timely disclosure.” This was one of the grounds for rejection in the case of Richardson v. State Highway & Transportation Commission. In this case, the Commission attempted to introduce a Simulation Model of Automobile Collision (SMAC) to support its argument. However, after the trial court held a chambers hearing with the Commission’s expert to discuss the simulation’s origins and foundations, it dismissed the SMAC’s admission after a lengthy offer of proof. Amongst other things, it was concerned that many of the basic facts underlying the simulation were not known or reasonably certain, but rather variables. Importantly, the trial court was also mindful of the opposing parties’ lack of notice of the simulation results until the last business day before trial, and the consequent limit on their ability to cross-examine.

In conclusion, in the case of Anderson vs Trent, it was suggested that animation and underlying data should be disclosed at least two weeks before trial. However, further explanation was also provided stating that “untimely disclosure should not, standing alone, necessarily result in the exclusion of the animation. But late disclosure may prevent the opposing party from adequately attempting to explain why the animation is not a fair and accurate representation which, in turn, may prompt the court to conclude its probative value does not substantially outweigh the danger of unfair prejudice.”

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