Forensic Engineering: A Terminal Role for Many Professional Engineers

Many popular entertainment outlets depict various forms of forensic professionals, such as forensic scientists, forensic detectives, and forensic laboratory technicians.  What’s more, popular crime shows depict DNA analysis and other techniques for vetting out criminals.  While these roles and depictions certainly exist, they are not as popular as depicted.  What is more prevalent, and, as usual, unknown in this society is the “stealth profession’s” role in forensic engineering.  That is, Professional Engineers in forensic engineering.

Forensic Engineers:  a Terminal Role of Some Engineers

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gauges various engineering career levels or “grades.”  These grades can be found here.  Eight grades are laid out from experience levels of 0 to 20 years.  The terminal grades of engineers are almost unrecognizable from the early ones.  According to the ASCE, an engineer does not fully mature until 20 years of engineering experience is attained, along with an assortment of licenses, credentials, and titles.

The comparison is made here to ASCE, because forensic engineering is strictly relegated to licensed Professional Engineers with at least 15 years of experience with many professionals exceeding 30 years of experience.  In addition, advanced degrees and specialty certifications are desired along with an excellent Curriculum Vitae.  Even with the right credentials, an engineer still has to be recruited, accidentally enter the industry, or be referred to begin to conduct forensic engineering work.

Some engineers, advanced in their careers, restrict their practice to only forensic engineering work.  Forensic engineering is also common among engineers who are the sole practitioner of their engineering firms or for smaller engineering firms.  Other engineers supplement or enhance their practice of engineering by engaging in a limited amount of forensic engineering work.

Some Forensic Engineering Examples

One might think that a professional engineer would only become involved in catastrophic incidents that involve large property losses or the loss of life.  While such incidents do occur and professionals are retained, most forensic engineering takes place for losses less than $500K and for injuries with medical bills less than $100K.  Many involve prosaic events that the average person can relate to.  Some examples of accidents or losses that may end up with the retainage of a forensic engineer are:

  • Residential fires caused by furnace malfunctions
  • Residential fires caused by lightning strikes
  • Residential fires caused by fireplace mishaps
  • Slips and falls on commercial floors, steps, or ramps
  • Water damage from unwanted flooding or water infiltration
  • Fires from lithium-ion battery charging
  • Water damage from inadvertent fire sprinkler actuation
  • Commercial construction accidents leading to simple to moderate injury

Forensic Engineering Clients

The loss events depicted above result in a personal or commercial insurance claim.  The primary insurer, being the homeowner’s policy, or general liability commercial insurance policy, covers the damages and losses via payout to the owner or victim.  However, the primary insurer often subrogates, or transfers the requirement of paying for the claim, to another party or multiple other parties it feels may have been responsible for the loss.  The subrogation may attempt to have ten or more parties participate in paying out a portion or the full amount of the claim.  These subrogation activities are what normally trigger the need for forensic engineers, as many defendants are created from the subrogation acts.  The plaintiff (the primary insurer) has a team of experts as well, but there is typically one plaintiff and many defendants.

That said, the end client of forensic engineers are insurance companies.  However, in between the insurance companies and the forensic engineers exist many parties:  insurance claims investigators, attorneys, victims/defendants, and the firms who retained the forensic engineers.  Often, there are specialty firms who act as clearinghouses for forensic engineering experts who approach the engineers on a case by case basis in order to retain them for one of the upper chain entities described above.

The picture is a little different for more serious cases that involve fatalities, larger losses, public entities, and other, more serious infractions.  For these cases, forensic engineering firms who specialize in and only in forensic engineering are retained to work these cases.  These firms have specialized teams of engineers and support personnel and are experienced in deposing, expert testimony, forensic testing, and other advanced services.

Forensic Engineering Services

Once retained, the forensic engineer may conduct a field visit with other personnel, will review existing data, perform engineering analysis, and consult regulatory information such as building codes and engineering standards.  An engineering opinion regarding the cause of the loss is rendered in an engineering report that may or may not be supplemented with calculations, engineering analysis, and references to codes and standards.  There are many instances where an engineering analysis, calculations, and references to codes and standards does not help with the case and the only tool available to the forensic engineer is expert engineering judgment.  Notwithstanding, expert engineering opinion is a valuable tool and should not be discounted in the practice of engineering.

Once the forensic engineering team receives the engineer’s report, they may ask for additional information, may ask the engineer to debrief counsel or other personnel, or place the engineer on notice for deposition or testimony.

Due to the large number of defendants that get brought into cases via subrogation, the involvement of a forensic engineer hopefully exonerates their client (a defendant) and they leave the lawsuit via dismissal or informal settlement.  If this does not occur, an informal settlement normally occurs for an unspecified amount and the case is closed.  Very few cases of the small magnitude mentioned above ever go to trial.

Forensic Engineer’s Legacy

For an engineer to be successful in forensic engineering, it is important that they deliver on services they claim to be experts in.  This is exemplified by how they are typically approached regarding rendering services on a particular case.  A claims representative may contact them with a relatively vague question asking “Do you have experience with medium pressure steam pipe ruptures?”  This type of problem would be delegated to a mechanical engineer who has experience with the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code and who could possibly calculate steam piping stresses.  On the other hand, a mechanical engineer who specializes in HVAC may not be suited for the loss.

The claims representative, or person vetting the engineer for retainage, is placing great faith on that engineer properly gauging his or her abilities in being helpful with the case.   Engineering Laws and Standards of Practice prohibit engineers from practicing outside the scope of their abilities, but forensic engineering places that requirement under considerable difficulty because the nature of cases is vague from the beginning.  During some cases, an engineer may be forced to leave the case after he or she discovers that the work is beyond his or her expertise.

A consistent track record with regard to accepting the right cases and delivering consistent results is necessary to continue with and be successful at forensic engineering.  A forensic engineer often discovers or bears to light details and information that others miss.  An exceptional forensic engineer will discover things, by virtue of engineering analysis, calculations, codes and standards, regulatory information, and vast experience, that change the course of the case or that indicts or exonerates parties to the case.  A blend of hands on experience, knowledge of codes and standards, knowledge of industry regulations, knowledge of equipment testing practices, and a creative mindset are the tools of an exceptional forensic engineer whose concise statement “I cannot find any wrong doing in this case” elucidates much in a case.

John P. Stoppi Jr., P.E., M.Eng., Sc.D. has experience with small to medium forensic engineering cases and is short-listed by several local firms who specialize in placing forensic engineers to cases involving property loss and injury.