Forensic Engineering: What is it?
A building collapses. People are injured. Property is damaged. After the dust settles, the legal system kicks into gear and the courts seek to determine the cause of the collapse so the injured party can be made whole. In doing so, the courts require the assistance of an expert to sort through the facts to determine the cause and origin of the failure. By definition, that expert engages if the practice of forensic engineering.
Unlike traditional undergraduate, graduate or doctorate engineering curriculum, forensic engineering is rarely taught as a core engineering science program. That is because Forensic Engineering is the application of many different engineering and scientific principles to determine the root cause of a physical or performance failure. The basic structure of any forensic investigation involves collecting data, a technical review of the failure, development of a failure profile, investigation synthesis, development of a hypothesis, and reporting.
Many of the engagements undertaken by the forensic engineer do not involve sworn testimony. But when serving as an expert and providing an opinion in a court of law, the engineer must demonstrate a special knowledge of the subject matter upon which the opinion is based. That special knowledge comes through years off education, experience, and training.
The anatomy of a typical forensic engineering engagement for a structural engineer demonstrates the unique aspects of the forensic engineering profession:
A house floods. A plumber determines that a water line embedded within a house slab is broken and leaking. In addition to flood damage, the house structure and foundation sustain damage in the form of foundation and brittle wall material cracking. The homeowner wishes to determine if the water from the leak caused the foundation and wall damage. A forensic engineer is engaged to determine the cause of the apparent damage to the foundation and walls.
The forensic engineer collects data, technically reviews the damage, develops a failure profile, synthesizes this information, develops failure cause and origin hypothesis, and then reports upon the hypothesis in the form of a concluding opinion. The homeowner may rely upon the expert’s opinion to make the proper damage repairs.
If the homeowner seeks to recover damages through the courts, the forensic engineer may be called to provide sworn testimony. The testimony presumably would cover the basis of the engineer’s failure opinion and any other aspect of the case related to the engineer’s investigation. The sworn testimony may be limited to an oral deposition. If the matter is litigated further, the engineer may be required to testify before a jury. While the courts may rely on the engineers testimony as factual evidence, the engineer’s testimony will likely by scrutinized by cross-examination to allow the jury to determine the credibility of the engineer’s opinion.