How Courtroom Demonstratives Told a Client's Story

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“Over the last 30 plus years as a trial lawyer, I have used a variety of visual aids in trial.  However, the model of a railroad hopper door that Phil O’Keefe built is the best visual aid that I have ever used. It was simple and it worked just like the original, so everyone understood how the door operated and how coking coal spilled out on my client’s foot causing his injury. Another thing that I like about models is that they are dependable and simple.  They do not freeze up at critical moments like computer graphics. I plan to use more in the future.”   - Fred Harrison, Esq., Frederick J. Harrison, P.C.  A railroad worker was injured when coking coal spilled through a door located in the bottom of a rail car, injuring his leg.  The attorney representing the injured man retained Phil O’Keefe to build courtroom demonstratives to more effectively tell his client’s story to the jury. This photo of an exemplar rail car does not provide sufficient detail to understand how the door and latch mechanism (circled) works. The rail car door’s latching mechanism is difficult to grasp visually, even with the aid of a photograph.  To try and describe the latch’s operation to a jury using words alone would be even more confusing. Phil was provided with photos of an exemplar railroad car upon which to base his scale model construction.  He was also given a copy of the injured man’s deposition.  These, however, were lacking in the type of detailed information which would be necessary to construct a model. This close up photo of the exemplar rail car door provides insufficient detail to serve as the basis for a scale model. Closer examination of the photo yields the word “WINE” cast into the side of the latch mechanism. To obtain the highly detailed information that would be necessary to construct the model, Phil investigated the records of the US Patent and Trademark Office, searching for reference to the word “WINE.” His search resulted in the discovery of a patent specification of the latch mechanism that yielded drawings detailed enough to begin work on the model. With the information that the patent revealed, a fully functional one-quarter (1:4) scale model of the latch in question could be built.  It was constructed of heavy gauge styrene plastic and metal and measured 15” long by 10” wide and 8” high.  The result was a model that was both lightweight and durable enough to enable the jurors to examine and operate to their satisfaction. This fully functional 1:4 scale model of the rail car hopper door measured 15 x 10 x 8 inches and weighed only 2 pounds.  Phil made the model to be lightweight, yet strong enough for the jurors to hold in their hands and operate. The next task at hand was to make clear the issue of perspective in order to illustrate the size relationship between the worker, the rail car, and the car’s hopper door.  This was accomplished through the use of a 1:28 scale diorama, measuring 20” long by 8” wide and 8” high. This diorama effectively demonstrates correct perspective, that is, size relationship, between the elements involved. Through the introduction of these models into the safety and comfort of the courtroom, the attorney was able to achieve the same objective as had he taken the jurors to an actual rail yard.  The net result was that both time and money were saved without sacrificing a clear understanding of the contributing elements to his client’s injuries. Phil O’Keefe’s model work has been commissioned by attorneys, museums, and corporations across the United States.  His clients include the world famous Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, Morrison-Knudsen Corporation, Trinity Industries, Thrall Car Manufacturing Company, Science Applications International Corporation, General Electric, and Norfolk Southern Corporation.