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.
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 planes 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 USAirs 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 joba 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 airplanes 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
airplanes crew were at the mercy of fate.
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 States
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. "Theyve
hung their hat on, You cant 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. "Theres
an incredible complexity involved in making all of this clear to
Z-Axis designers used computer-generated material to assist attorneys
in presenting the facts of tobacco inhalation and nicotines
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
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
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 clients
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 plaintiffs and defendants
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 clients 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. "Its a combination of understanding
the technical aspects of the case, understanding the attorneys 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 airplanes 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,"
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 mothers
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 didnt pan
out, they turned to television. After winning two regional Emmys for their
animation work on a PBS special about nuclear storage and a childrens
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. Weve 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 aircrafts 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 explainingin the relatively short period
of a bench trialissues 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."
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
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 fabulousit 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 casesmost
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. "Its
how you use it to tell your story. Its all in the content and strategic
design. When designed and presented effectively, animation is what juries
remember best. Its what they sit and think about in the deliberation
"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 wont permit anything that overtly
inflames a jurys 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 didnt 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
wont 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, thats all,"
After 20 years in the industry, winning is a familiar feeling to Treibitz,
though hes 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
Sarah Dolinar is Assistant
Director of Public Affairs
and Assistant Editor of PCM.
Photo by Tom Cherrey.