On September 30, 1955, James Dean was killed in a car accident on a California highway. He was only 24 years old. In the few years prior to his death, he was making quite a name for himself even though only one of his movies, East of Eden, had been released. Rebel without a Cause, probably his most well known film, and Giant, were released after that fateful September day. There is a lot of lore surrounding his death—was it his allegedly wild lifestyle that caused it, was his beloved Porsche cursed, was he even the driver? Unfortunately, because the accident occurred more than 50 years ago — long before sophisticated legal forensics existed — we just don’t have many answers.
So, what we at PROOF are going to do is analyze Dean’s accident as we would any catastrophic crash today, in 2016. If his accident occurred today, would he have died? Would any of the parties have sued? Truth is, Dean wasn’t the only person injured that day; both his passenger, Rolf Wutherich, and the driver of the other car, Donald Turnapseed, suffered injuries, physical and emotional. And, perhaps most interesting, would Dean himself have the legal right to sue if he had lived or what about his heirs, if he hadn’t lived?
Certainly car safety features are vastly different from what they were in 1955 when no one even bothered to wear a seatbelt (neither Dean or Wuthnerich had their’s on at the time of the crash) and so perhaps airbags and reinforced steel would have saved Dean’s life or affected the seriousness of the crash. But, more compelling is what would we learn from the event data recorders in the cars involved—the “black boxes” of automobiles. Most people don’t even know cars have them. Ahh, but they do; and we can guarantee that a brand new Porsche, like the one Dean was driving, or a Ford truck like Turnapseed’s vehicle, would be chock full of information. You see, they have to because in 2012, the National Highway Transportation and Safety administration (NHTSA) passed a regulation that event data recorders must track 15 specific data points, including speed, steering, braking, acceleration, seatbelt use, and, in the event of a crash, force of impact and whether airbags deployed. And, the truth is we may be able to find out even more because depending on the car manufacturer and model, event data recorders may have the capability to capture additional information (even though car companies aren’t required to disclose exactly what those are). In fact, if you have newish car, check out the language in your owner’s manual explaining the capabilities of the black box in your car. Notice anything? Purposely vague. Yet, there is a great deal of information to glean from those event data recorders.
PROOF with Jill Stanley is going to take a fresh in depth look at that September 30, 1955 accident applying current day laws governing motor vehicle accident liability and analyzing the effects of how today’s car safety features might have lead to a very, very different outcome—one that would have given us at least sixty more years of that very talented young actor from Indiana. Stay tuned for more!