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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


A Thousand Pictures

On a pleasant September evening in 1994, USAir Flight 427, a Boeing 737 aircraft, rolled in the air above Pittsburgh and spiraled downward for 23 seconds to a fiery crash on a hillside, taking the lives of the 127 passengers and five crew members aboard.

Nine seconds before the crash, as depicted in an animation prepared by Z-Axis for the USAir trial.

After five years of investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that Flight 427 met disaster due to the failure of a hydraulic valve that controlled the plane’s rudder system. Parker-Hannifin, the manufacturer of the defective valve, and Boeing resolutely argued that the crash was due to pilot error.

Last June, eight years after the crash, a federal jury ruled that Parker-Hannifin and Boeing together were liable for the destruction of USAir Flight 427. The ruling required the companies to reimburse USAir’s insurance carrier for the millions of dollars paid in settlements to the families of the 132 passengers and crew on board. For some, the news was just a blip on CNN Headline News. For Al Treibitz ’74, CEO of Z-Axis, the company that provided USAir attorneys with the technology to present evidence for their argument, it was the end of another harrowing job—a feeling not so much of success as of relief.

During the trial, the jury listened to the last minute of the cockpit voice recorder as they watched a computer-animated reconstruction based on the flight data recorder. The animation depicted the uncontrollable failure of the rudder system and the airplane’s subsequent 23-second plunge. The "black box" recording, Treibitz says, was one of the worst he has ever heard, and the sounds of the pilots’ frantic voices, combined with the methodical depiction of what happened, brought a dreadful sense of reality to the courtroom. In the end, he believes, it was the combination of animation and recording that gave the members of the jury a clear understanding that once the failure took place, the airplane’s crew were at the mercy of fate.

The State of Minnesota v. Philip Morris

In 1994, the State of Minnesota and Blue Cross-Blue Shield sued some of the giants in the tobacco industry, including Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and the American Tobacco Company, for billions in damages to cover the cost of treating taxpayers for smoking-related illnesses.

Representing a coalition of insurance companies, the State’s team contracted Z-Axis to develop an impressive amount of evidentiary material based on expert testimony. "Tobacco litigation is very difficult to win," says Al Treibitz. "They’ve hung their hat on, ‘You can’t prove it.’"

Proving the ill-effects of smoking requires explanation and acceptance of complex issues regarding disease, causation, and addiction. "We presented so much statistical evidence," says Treibitz. "There’s an incredible complexity involved in making all of this clear to a jury."

Z-Axis designers used computer-generated material to assist attorneys in presenting the facts of tobacco inhalation and nicotine’s effects on the human brain and body. Exhibit boards, computer graphics and animations, and tutorials comparing smokers to non-smokers were used to communicate evidence of physiology, disease, and cigarette manufacturing and design.

To show that tobacco companies violated the adopted code of not advertising to minors, attorneys presented the jury with digitally archived pieces of commercial advertisements, such as Joe Camel ads.

In 1998, after 16 weeks of trial, the case was settled only hours before it went to the jury for a total of $6.6 billion. It the most comprehensive settlement to date in the litigation against the tobacco industry.

In the legal presentation industry, an industry responsible for designing evidentiary materials and technology used at hearings and trials, the creative minds at Z-Axis have become experts at helping lawyers tell their client’s story. Elucidating the workings of the American legal system like a man fascinated with the machine, Treibitz explains that a jury must discriminate between the two stories provided by the plaintiff’s and defendant’s attorneys. "The whole job is one of communication," he says.

"What we do is help strategize and design a way to visually present the crucial aspects of our client’s story in the most clear and effective way so that a jury can make their judgment with as much information as they can," says Treibitz. "It’s a combination of understanding the technical aspects of the case, understanding the attorney’s strategy and then presenting that strategy through the appropriate technology."

Treibitz was in on the ground floor when computer-generated graphics and animation gained legitimacy in the American courts with Connors v. United States. In 1985, Delta Flight 191 crashed during a storm on approach to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In the subsequent 1988 trial, Delta attorneys argued that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Weather Service were responsible for failing to warn the aircraft of an impending thunderstorm. The United States Department of Justice, defending the agencies against these accusations, asked Treibitz and Z-Axis to help illustrate the details of the fatal crash. The resulting computer graphics and animation included depictions of the airplane’s fatal path as well as the instrument and radar displays and weather phenomena happening during the event. In the end, with the help of that technology, the agencies were exonerated. It was Treibitz’ first major job in legal presentations.

"I believe the groundbreaking use of animation in that trial legitimized the use of sophisticated presentation technology in litigation," says Treibitz.

A music major while at Pomona and an avid photographer today, Treibitz began his work with computer graphics in the early 1980s. His wife, Linda Heller Treibitz ’74, once worked for Delta Airlines. Her mother’s boyfriend turned Treibitz on to computer graphics technology. Together they started a business to produce computer animation for industrial applications, mainly producing weather presentations, and when that didn’t pan out, they turned to television. After winning two regional Emmys for their animation work on a PBS special about nuclear storage and a children’s show on the French alphabet, they hit upon an idea: Could the Justice Department use computer graphics technology for presentation in aviation cases? When Treibitz got the Delta Flight 191 case, they, and the legal presentation industry, got a boost.

"There are two distinct aspects to this industry," says Treibitz, "the evidentiary materials presented in a trial, and the trial technology used to present those materials. We’ve been pioneers in both areas." In the 1988 Delta trial, they used the emerging technology of interactive videodisc. By hooking up a computer to a videodisc player, the trial team had interactive access to 13 animations to show what was happening both in the aircraft’s cockpit and outside.

Up to that point, the use of computer animation in the courtroom was not widely accepted. Judges were unfamiliar with the technology and attorneys risked spending a lot of time and money and not knowing if the judge would allow its use. For Treibitz, it was just a logical step from the photograph.

"Animation is just a much more sophisticated use of the visual medium," he says. "When photographs were first introduced as evidence in court, there were battles about that, too." Animation, as he points out, is an enhancement of photos and illustrations that can better serve to explain dynamic situations. In the case of USAir Flight 427, attorneys might have used a static illustration of the structure of the rudder valve, but instead, they used computer animation to illustrate the function of the valve, its failure and, ultimately, the result of that failure.

"If you have to explain something that took place over 10 years, like the contamination of a well," says Treibitz, "with animation you can explain that in a minute." Likewise, animation could be used to explain an instantaneous process, such as how electrons move within a computer chip. Using the example of a plane crash or a car crash, Treibitz explains, "You can show things in real time. You can watch the animation of the aircraft turning in only a few seconds. You know that the pilots are jolted and trying to react. When you have a car that crashes as it tries to pass someone, you can really get a feel for reaction times when you animate it and show the experience of the crash."

While Treibitz and his crew are well known in aviation litigation cases, Z-Axis has produced legal presentations for a variety of clients. Fifty percent of their work is with intellectual property cases, such as trademark, copyright and patent infringement. "We typically deal with esoteric fields and complex issues," he says. Two- and three-dimensional computer animation can explain the often subtle differences between old and new inventions much more clearly than can be done with still images or textual description. That is key when explaining it to a jury.

"The old adage of ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is perfect," says Treibitz, "Today, animation is worth a thousand pictures." The idea of explaining—in the relatively short period of a bench trial—issues such as magnetism, genetic engineering, MRI scans is extraordinarily difficult, he says. "Our ability to do that is profoundly valuable to our legal team. With computer animation, juries get it. I remember a jury once saying that they felt talked down to by one side, but explained to by our side."

The U.S. v. Timothy McVeigh

On the day in 1995 when the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was bombed, Al Treibitz was giving a presentation at a conference with a lawyer who would later lead the prosecution against Timothy McVeigh. When that attorney hired Treibitz and his team, the judge warned them not to do anything to sensationalize the bombing. One of their first challenges was to produce a videotape that reported recovery efforts without swaying the jury.

"Though our instructions were not to make it prejudicial, we had to show how devastating it was," says Treibitz. After the trial opened, Treibitz watched the CNN coverage. To his relief and satisfaction, the anchor reported that the tape did not sensationalize the bombing. "That gave the trial team a good start in being fair."

The prosecution hinged on tying McVeigh to the alias used to rent the truck used in the bombing. Since the judge would not allow a handwriting expert to testify, the prosecution asked Treibitz and his team to produce some graphics. Using known handwriting samples of McVeigh, they reconstructed the signature used to sign for the truck. "We reassembled the letters and compared them," explained Treibitz. "It was fabulous—it was clear that it was the same writer." Legal commentators later called the signature illustration "original" and "brilliant."

While computer animation has been invaluable in a variety of trial cases, Z-Axis designers often create simpler technologies for different types of cases. Many case strategies, such as the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, make more use of static exhibit boards than of computer animation. Others use video and interactive presentation tools. Treibitz holds a patent for a trial presentation technology system he designed in the course of his work. Called VuPoint, it is specifically designed to allow attorneys to digitally archive thousands of pages of documents as well as animation, video, photographs and other materials. Using just a laptop, they can show any item instantaneously on a monitor or screen in the courtroom. Recently, even in places like Missoula, Montana, courtrooms are being wired for the technology Z-Axis uses.

Today, a simple search of the Web will produce a long list of competitors also ready to equip trial teams with needed technology and presentation tools. Still, Treibitz and Z-Axis continue to procure high-profile cases—most recently a pending case involving the owners and insurers of the World Trade Center. In the aviation field, his firm is involved in most major air crash cases that go to trial in the United States, as well as some in other parts of the world.
He attributes the continuing success of Z-Axis more to the way the firm uses technology than to the technology itself. In fact, Treibitz and his technicians commonly use software that can be bought right off the shelf. "The software is merely a tool," he explains. "It’s how you use it to tell your story. It’s all in the content and strategic design. When designed and presented effectively, animation is what juries remember best. It’s what they sit and think about in the deliberation room."

"People say you can manipulate the jury," he adds. "But I believe our job is to present our understanding of the facts clearly and effectively and let the jury decide. If a trial team does not present their story in a clear and understandable manner, then a disservice is done to the legal system." Judges simply won’t permit anything that overtly inflames a jury’s emotional reaction, he explained. As an example, he recounted how one attorney, during the animation of an airplane crash, wanted to flash ‘Emergency’ as soon as the craft had a problem. "The truth was that the crew didn’t know about the emergency for several seconds. It would have been prejudicial to let the jury know of it before the crew did. You have to remove the prejudicial aspects or it won’t make it in court."

When the outcome of a trial depends on an accurate and impartial portrayal of facts, presentation means everything. "Sometimes we win by the fact that we just present the facts more clearly, that’s all,"

After 20 years in the industry, winning is a familiar feeling to Treibitz, though he’s reluctant to claim much of the credit. ""We have an extraordinarily high win percentage, but I give most credit to the attorneys that hire us. They are really the stars in these cases," he says. "I believe that we have a positive influence on the outcome, but only when the attorneys embrace the strategic value of visual communication in telling their stories."

—Sarah Dolinar is Assistant Director of Public Affairs
and Assistant Editor of

Photo by Tom Cherrey.