Computer Generated Graphics In The Courtroom: A Case Study Of The Hexane Explosion Trial

“Computer generated evidence are not filmed or videotaped captures of actual events that happened in the past. Rather, they are dynamic representations of those event”

According to an article published by The American Bar Association, The use of computer-generated animations and simulations is said to be on the rise in courtrooms around the country. Its use has become more and more common in today’s courtrooms, and nearly every state and federal circuit has addressed its use. It was explained that animations and simulations can greatly increase jurors’ understanding of complex issues, and are of extraordinary help in product liability cases in particular. There have been several cases where computer-generated graphics have been used and the Hexane Explosion trial will be discussed in this article. 

On February 13, 1981, a series of sewer explosions rocked the streets in Louisville, Kentucky, and destroyed several miles of homes, streets, and businesses. Though no lives were lost, four people were injured, sewers, as well as other kinds of infrastructure such as water lines, electrical lines, and private property, were also severely damaged. An industrial accident was said to have caused the mess. The explosions were triggered by hexane vapors unlawfully released from a Ralston-Purina soybean processing facility near the University of Louisville. Ralston-Purina used the explosive chemical “hexane” to extract oils from soybeans. The chemical “hexane” was supposed to be recycled, but instead, it spilled into the sewage system, where it accumulated in large quantities and flowed into the pipes beneath nearby residences. A spark from a car near the intersection of 12th & Hill Streets was traced to have ignited the hexane fumes in the sewers and caused excruciating damage. 

According to Hofer(2007) in his publication “The Rise of Courtroom Technology and its Effect on the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure”, this case saw the first use of full-motion graphics in a courtroom. He explained that the jury would have had to digest burdensome traditional kinds of demonstrative evidence (diagrams of the chemical plant, maps of the city sewer system, eyewitness accounts of the explosion, and expert testimony on gas chemistry) needed to convey the same arguments if a re-creation of the incident had not been done utilizing computer graphics. Instead, with the use of a re-creation, the jury was able to “see what happened” during the explosion. Two days after the jury was shown the computer simulation of the hexane explosion, the defendant settled the case for over $18 million.

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