The role of a professional engineer in counsel’s decision to take a case

Civil litigation tentatively begins when counsel meets with a potential client.  The purpose is to gather information to help him or her assess the merits of the case and decide if he should take it.

A professional engineer could have a role in this meeting, or in consultation shortly afterwards.  This is particularly the case if the legal and technical issues are likely to be complex requiring extensive engineering investigation to support a reliable opinion.

                 “I’ve seen cases that should never have gone forward …”

I’ve seen cases that should never have gone forward.  Not because of a lack of technical merit but because of the client’s limited financial resources to bear the cost of the forensic engineering investigation necessary to determine the cause of the problem.  These would be costs learned about after a claim was filed and discoveries held – and only after a professional engineer was retained to investigate the technical issues.

During the meeting, counsel obtains information from the client’s description of the problem and the damages he believes he has incurred, documents provided by the client, knowledge of witnesses, answers to questions raised by the lawyer, the lawyer’s past experience of similar matters, and comments by an expert on the technical issues.

One of several important considerations covered by the meeting and the lawyer’s review of the facts is the need for an expert on the case.  An expert can make or break a case and if thought to be necessary should be chosen carefully and retained early (Ref.1).  Even if only retained briefly to support counsel’s assessment of merit, in the event counsel decides not to take the case.

If a professional engineer is not included in the meeting, then counsel might confer with one later during his review of the facts prior to making a decision about taking the case.  The engineer would, of course, review the information from the meeting, particularly the documents, and identify the technical issues prior to counseling the lawyer.

The engineer can also provide very preliminary comment on the engineering investigation needed to address the technical issues and to formulate an opinion on the cause giving rise to them.  The engineer would educate counsel by outlining some of the tasks that would need to be carried out during an investigation and the time to do these – factors that can have a significant impact on the cost of litigation.

If the technical issues are complex – and the engineer can certainly help determine that, the monetary claim for damages likely to be substantial, and the lawsuit quite lengthy then this will affect the client’s litigation costs.  The client’s ability to bear these costs is important information in counsel’s decision on taking the case.  An engineer can have a role in assisting counsel make that decision.

Following are tasks that a professional engineer – or any expert for that matter, could carry out during or shortly after counsel’s first meeting with a potential client to assist counsel’s decision about taking the case:

  1. Attend and audit the meeting for technical issues, or meet with counsel shortly afterwards
  2. Review client’s descriptions of the problem and the reasons for claiming damages
  3. Read available documents
  4. Review witness’ statements as soon as taken by counsel
  5. Begin identification of potential technical issues
  6. Begin identification of technical documents counsel to seek
  7. Familiarize counsel on the typical stages and tasks in a forensic engineering investigation, the fact of unexpected follow-up investigations, the fact that investigations can lead in unexpected directions, the time required, and the difficulty estimating costs 
  8. Identify physical evidence, tangible exhibits and possible demonstrative evidence
  9. Brief counsel on parties that might be involved in the potential litigation and their relationship to the technical issues
  10. Provide information that would facilitate early settlement
  11. Note unfavourable evidence for the potential client’s claim
  12. Remind counsel that only one side of the story is known.  The opponent’s story and documents could give rise to a small shift in the technical facts and alter the complexion of the claim
  13. Tentatively assess the technical merits of the case with respect to the potential parties
  14. Outline preliminary engineering investigation and the major tasks involved
  15. Speculate on follow-up investigations
  16. Identify specialists that may be required
  17. Speculate on the order of magnitude of investigative costs
  18. If counsel decides to take the case, and position letters are appropriate, ensure that demand letters, and responses, are based only on well-established technical facts and data as known at the time

References

1. Stockwood, Q.C., David, Civil Litigation, A Practical Handbook, 5th ed, 2004, Thompson Carswell

 

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