Forensic engineering can play a crucial role in construction litigation and dispute resolution. By conducting forensic building investigations, forensic engineers are able to produce findings that can be used as evidence in court proceedings, and some provide expert witness testimony.
Picture the following situation: you’re the owner of a warehouse. After a few days of heavy rain, the warehouse’s roof collapses, irreparably damaging the expensive machinery and other goods stored inside.
Naturally, the owners of the machinery and the goods want recompense for their destroyed belongings. Before any compensation can be paid out, however, the cause of the collapse must be investigated and liability determined. In this article, forensic consultants from VERTEX will discuss the role forensic engineers play in these proceedings and how their input can alter the course of a case. Read on.
The questions that need to be answered include:
- Was the warehouse constructed properly?
- Was the warehouse built using a faulty design?
- What state was the warehouse in when the collapse occurred?
- Did the owner of the machinery observe reasonable precautions?
- Which mechanical and chemical processes caused the building materials to fail?
- Was the warehouse correctly maintained or had it been weakened by stress or corrosion?
The only way to answer these questions is to conduct a forensic structure investigation that uses accepted scientific methodologies and experiments to determine the true cause of the collapse. Needless to say, this type of investigation can only be performed by highly qualified forensic structural engineers who have the ability to correctly gather and interpret the relevant data.
Why are good forensic engineers so valuable?
In the example above, unless the warehouse owner and the owners of the machinery are able to reach an agreement, their lawyers will have to hire licensed forensic engineers to investigate the collapse.
In this case, these investigations may involve:
- Determining if the warehouse was maintained correctly to prevent corrosion that may weaken the building materials;
- Inspecting all the metal structural parts for evidence of breakage or stress;
- Inspecting the interior of the warehouse to determine if and how they contributed to the damage;
- Performing experiments and using computer models to examine the molecular structure of the roof’s support beams and reproduce the collapse in a laboratory setting;
- Analyzing the role of the machinery and goods owners in what happened.
Are forensic engineers biased?
For many forensic engineers, it is of utmost importance that every forensic building investigation is conducted in an impartial and scientific manner. A biased forensic engineer who discounts some evidence to tell their client only what they want to hear will ultimately provide evidence or an expert opinion that won’t be able to stand in court.
In many cases, both plaintiff and defense retain forensic experts. This means biased findings can become obvious to the opposing side’s expert and thus dramatically increase the chance of the client losing the lawsuit. There’s also a big picture issue as well – if an incomplete or biased opinion stands and the true cause of the structural failure is not determined, this can lead to the same failure reoccurring in the future, sometimes with more devastating results.
Why are expert witnesses important?
In a criminal or civil litigation setting, an expert witness has the ability to supply and testify factual findings in court proceedings. Their forensic skills and experience in the industry help determine issues that stand out from the norm and what factors led to a failure. This type of testimony holds great weight in litigation and is absolutely essential in complex construction cases like our hypothetical warehouse example.
That being said, not all expert witnesses are the same. First-rate expert witnesses are able to explain their findings in a concise and effective manner, and when they’re cross-examined, they won’t get nervous or confused by the opposing counsel. On the other hand, inexperienced or biased expert witnesses can hinder your case by supplying scientifically unsound evidence or presenting their findings in a confusing or meandering way.
It’s important to note that not all forensic engineers are testifying expert witnesses. When you have a case, it is important to determine the needs of the case so you can find the right expert or team of experts for the job.