Evidence to the Contrary: Statements vs. Physical Evidence

As forensic experts, one of the most valuable resources available to us in an investigation is a statement from the insureds or claimants. Not only can this indicate a starting point for our investigation, but it can also provide additional context to our findings – does the statement align with or contradict the physical evidence at the scene? Looking at both the statement and the physical evidence side by side has proven to be a very powerful technique for distinguishing between fact and fiction. In some situations, the physical evidence may be so burnt that it doesn’t clearly communicate to the investigator what happened, but it can still tell us what didn’t happen. Here are three cases where the insured’s statement proved to be the crux of the investigation.

Case 1

The insured reported that his truck was stolen from his driveway, sometime between 11:30 PM and 6:30 AM. In his statement, he described the truck as being in perfect condition, with fewer than 10,000 kilometres on it. The vehicle was soon discovered 17 kilometers off-road, where it had been abandoned and burned. At this point, Origin and Cause were retained to investigate the cause of the fire.

Based on the circumstances, and my experience with this particular model truck, I turned my attention to the truck’s rear axle gears. Here I made two important discoveries: First, I found that the main pinion bearing was badly worn – which is a common failure – and second, that the differential was full of sawdust and wood shavings. This is an old trick that people used to sell a car with bad gears, and critically, it tells us that the insured knew about the problem with the pinion bearing, which it was an expensive repair, and chose not to include it in his statement. The damage to the truck was too extensive to determine the origin and cause of the fire, but the facts surrounding the rear axle triggered an investigation into the vehicle’s owner.

Case 2

The insured was driving his high-performance sports car on a city street when, according to his statement, the car caught fire. The damage resulted in a total loss, which amounted to several hundred thousand dollars. Due to the nature of the incident, and the cost of the claim, Origin and Cause were retained to investigate the cause of the fire and to determine if there was a chance for subrogation.

After attending the scene, the vehicle was moved to a garage where we could examine it in greater detail. While the car had suffered heavy fire damage, we discovered that it had also been virtually torn in half (damage consistent with a collision). However, we were still able to recover the Event Data Recorder and download the pre-crash data. It revealed that the car was travelling at 186 km/h before experiencing a sudden decrease in velocity (another indication of a collision). The exact cause of the fire – whether it was the result of the crash or set intentionally to obscure the evidence – was never determined. However, the insured’s statement was incompatible with the physical evidence, and the claim was denied.  

Case 3

The insured stated he was driving his truck on the highway when a fire started in the engine. He pulled over to the side of the road and vacated the truck. The fire proceeded to spread, consuming the cab and eventually engulfing the entire trailer. The insured was therefore not only claiming his truck but the load he was hauling as well. Origin and Cause were retained to determine the cause of the fire.

The cab had been reduced to scrap, making it unlikely that we would be able to locate the origin and determine and cause of the fire. However, the Electronic Control Module from the engine survived and had recorded 2 minutes of data prior to the vehicle’s last stop. Based on the insured’s statement, it should show that the truck was travelling at approximate highway speeds before braking and coming to a stop. However, it showed the truck was only going 24 mph. Furthermore, it was idling the entire time, with the clutch depressed, eventually coming to a stop without ever applying the brakes. This evidence indicated that the truck was most likely being towed, and further examination of the truck found that the inner shafts of the transmission were broken in half. In light of this, an investigation was opened into fraud.

Show me the Statement

We are being retained to investigate more and more claims without statements on file. A statement won’t change the outcome of our investigation, which is based on the analysis of the physical evidence. And it won’t change our determination – which must adhere to NFPA 921 guidelines – from undetermined to arson. However, statements do provide insurers with more options to recover their losses in cases where even Origin and Cause is unable to determine the origin and cause.

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About the Author

Russ Colosi, CVFI, CFEI, IAAI-CFI

With over 20 years of experience, Russ specializes in mechanical and fire forensic investigations involving heavy vehicles, trucks and large diesel engines, including vehicle failure analysis and electronic data extraction. Russ also served as a firefighter with Thorold Fire Department for 7 years.