Defending Premises Liability Cases with Video Surveillance Footage

While you can’t bank your whole case on a short video clip, the presence of “hard” video evidence jurors can see with their own eyes is much more persuasive than being told what happened.  (Especially when they’re being told by two different lawyers or experts with opposing motives and viewpoints.)

To that extent, jurors really do have to see it to believe it — or, at least, it helps.  If they can become a surrogate eye-witness to the event, they only have to trust their own eyes.

When your team has access to beneficial surveillance footage, therefore, you’ll want to include it.  But showing the footage is the easy part.  It’s how you integrate it into the case story that makes all the difference.

Why Pressing “Play” on Video Surveillance Footage Isn’t Good Enough

Too many attorneys just set up the footage and run it.

At best, that’s a missed opportunity; at worst, it can damage your case.

This is partly because attorneys, like all humans, are prone to bias.  When you’ve seen what you wanted to see from the footage (you wouldn’t be showing it in trial otherwise), you risk making the false assumption that jurors will see the same thing.  To you, the conclusion has become singular and obvious.  You may even begin to view the footage as an indisputable lynchpin of your case.

Yet, no matter the footage, jurors may still see it differently.  Our jury research projects that have included surveillance video have shown that jurors’ sensibilities (attitudes, experiences, beliefs) can impact how they interpret the events portrayed by the video.  That is, they may focus on certain details over others.  They may believe that certain actions in the video that you think were incredibly foolish were in fact reasonable or defensible — a simple matter of opinion.

Even if you don’t believe the footage is susceptible to conflicting interpretations (and, somehow, it almost always is), if you breeze right through it jurors won’t necessarily know what they’ve just seen.  The vast majority of security footage is filmed on mediocre cameras and compressed; it can be blurry, grainy, and/or jumpy.  That fifteen seconds of footage might be more confusing than condemning.

As we demonstrate below, with some careful planning you can weave the footage into the context of a full, comprehensible story — giving each juror the best opportunity to see what you see.

How to Weave Your Surveillance Footage into a Complete Story

To show you how to incorporate the footage into a larger slide deck, let’s use a hypothetical case scenario:

Say a customer is attacked in your client’s parking lot, and now your client is on the line for purportedly lacking the proper security to prevent it.  It’s a negligence case – not a criminal case – and yet that brief bit of security footage you’ve obtained is going to bring your case story to life.

1) Set the Stage

As with most great stories, you’ll want to establish the setting and the circumstances before ramping up to the climax.  Here you have free reign to use all available resources to provide jurors with the location and time of the events in question.  Really setting the stage allows jurors to feel as though they are part of the action; through context, they can place themselves in the scene.

Use Google Maps and/or Google Earth to grab area photos.

  • You might start with a broader regional view. As you can see in the image, be sure to remove any of Google’s extra labeling from the Maps display, and instead include merely the town name and a company logo to identify the location of your client’s offices.
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  • Zoom in to a street view of your client’s offices, where the events occurred. Here, in addition to street view images, you can use company marketing graphics, social media graphics, and even YouTube video of the surrounding area to show exactly how it would look to a real person.

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You can include a basic informational slide or two about your client here as well. It’s a good place to work in subtle pieces that will continue to humanize your client to the jury.

  • Next, introduce the jury to the surrounding area with an overhead view of the nearby building(s)/location(s) relevant to your case. Walk your jury through each location, labelling each with text and color-coded, semi-transparent boxes.

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  • Click through each colored box to overlay street-view images of those locations.

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  • Add slides providing necessary details leading up to the events (e.g., What is the relationship between the victim and the attacker? What is the relationship between the victim and your client?  What did the victim know or say before the attack?  What was your client made aware of before the attack?).
  • Home in on the day, location, and moments directly before the attack. Walk the jury step-by-step through the arrival of the attacker to your client’s premises.

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2) On to the Footage

  • First, be sure to check the quality of the footage; if necessary, consider having an expert enhance the quality so the jury does not struggle to make out what is being shown. Plan ahead in case you need to call that expert to the stand to lay the foundation for the enhanced video.

[For instance, in a recent case we were asked to enhance some security footage.  To avoid objection we were listed as an expert if needed to be called to describe to the court the methods we employed to improve the video quality.]

  • Cut up your surveillance footage into brief vignettes to walk the jury through the events.

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  • You can intersperse still images with brief descriptive titles (NO other text) to lay the story out. The time stamp allows you to create tension and explore different angles (if available).

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3) Summarize

In literary terms, this is your dénouement.  When your footage is over, capitalize on your well-told story by reminding jurors what they’ve seen and how it applies to your defense.  Wind the story down and drive your points and themes home.

Conclusion

As you’ve probably realized, using surveillance footage effectively in the courtroom depends as much on context, pacing, and character development as it does on the footage itself.  Think of yourself as the director; even a great script can go down the tubes if it’s not deftly executed.  It’s your case you want jurors talking about in deliberations — so give them a blockbuster.

 

By: Adam Bloomberg, Managing Director – Visual Communications