Illinois Motor Vehicle Accidents: Entering Photographs into Evidence at Trial

When a motor vehicle accident occurs, there will invariably be physical damage to the motor vehicles. It is common for the cars involved in an accident to be photographed at the scene of the accident. Such photographs are often helpful in demonstrating the severity of the collision at trial. However, the photographs are not automatically admissible at trial to prove injuries or damages. Illinois Appellate Courts have wrestled with this question for years, and the Illinois Supreme Court has yet to clearly resolve the dispute.

Formerly, photographs depicting damage to a vehicle were admitted into evidence as long as the attorney laid the proper foundation. In Cancio, the Court found that although photographs of the plaintiff’s vehicle revealed little damage, they were relevant and helpful for the jury to consider in determining the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. Cancio v. White, 697 N.E.2d 749 (1st Dist. 1998). In DiCosola, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the trial court had the discretion to keep photographs out of evidence, especially without the use of expert testimony. DiCosola v. Bowman, 794 N.E.2d 875 (1st Dist. 2003).

Another important decision, Baraniak v. Kurby, expanded on the holding in DiCosola. Baraniak v. Kurby, 862 N.E.2d 1152 (Ill. App. 1st Dist. 2007). In Baraniak, the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that photographs used for impeachment, or disproving the other side, could not be used without an expert. Thus, the Baraniak court found, absent expert testimony on the correlation between vehicular damage and plaintiff’s claimed injuries, the photographs were not relevant.

However, it is important to note that their remains some disagreement between the various appellate court districts. The decisions of DiCosola and Baraniak were decisions of the First District. The First District is comprised of Cook County. Courts elsewhere may choose to follow the rulings the First District, but are not required to do so. The Fifth District of the Illinois Appellate Court, for example, has reached a conclusion that is opposite of the holding in Baraniak. In Fronabarger v. Burns, the Court found that the jury was best suited to determine the relationship between the vehicle damage and the plaintiff’s injuries, without utilization an expert. Fronabarger v. Burns, 895 N.E.2d 1125 (5th Dist. 2008).

The Illinois Supreme Court has not yet reviewed a case that will resolve this important evidentiary issue. In order to increase the probability the photographs will be admissible into evidence, an expert, such as a biomechanical engineer or physician, should be used. In cases from DuPage County or Kane County, the above decisions are merely “persuasive” authority and are not binding on the Court.

Dealing with injuries sustained from a motor vehicle accident can be expensive and confusing. It is important to understand what you must do in order to make sure that you receive everything you are entitled to in a potential lawsuit. If you are relying on photographs depicting vehicle damage, you should consult with an attorney who understands the law on admissibility of vehicle photographs. Your counsel should be familiar with the “split” among the Districts. If you or your loved one was involved in a motor vehicle accident, you should immediately contact a knowledgeable attorney.