What is forensic engineering?

You’ve probably seen the word “forensic” in the newspapers often enough.  The term is applied to many scientific disciplines today and to specialties outside the engineering and scientific professions.  The following item explains what is involved in “forensic” engineering.

Origin of the word “forensic”

The word “forensic” comes from the Latin forum and as an adjective means pertaining to or used in legal proceedings.  The forensic engineer helps with the technical issues in disputes – and their resolution – arising from engineering failures.  He does this by presenting and explaining complex technical principles, technical evidence, technical facts supported by the evidence, and opinions to help the parties resolve the dispute.  More than 90% of disputes are resolved by the parties in this manner without going to trial.

Forensic engineers use engineering methods to investigate failures

In my forensic engineering practice in eastern Canada, and reviewing some literature, I’ve come to think of forensic work as the use of the engineering approach, and various engineering methods and knowledge, to investigate the cause of failures in the built and natural environments – including environmentally related failures.  A failure may mean total collapse, partial collapse or inadequate performance and serviceability problems.

The same engineering approach – the methods may change, can be used to investigate the cause of slip, trip and fall accidents, and motor vehicle and aviation accidents causing property damage, personal injury, or death.

Methods the same in forensic engineering and design engineering

The engineering approach and the methods used during forensic investigation are essentially the same as those used during design of a structure.  And in applying those methods to forensic work there would be no greater or lesser attention paid to thoroughness and accuracy.

The difference between forensic engineering and design engineering

If there is a difference, forensic work looks at what was done in the past to provide for the loads on an existing structure and whether or not it was adequate.  Design work looks at what must be done in the future to adequately provide for the loads on a proposed structure.  “Load” in engineering can be anything to do with a structure that should have been provided for or must be provided for.

Forensic engineering

“Forensic engineering” is the term now accepted to connote the full spectum of services which an engineering expert can provide.  A number of engineering disciplines might be used in the investigation of a failure.  For example, civil engineering, foundation, geotechnical, environmental, structural, chemical, mechanical, and electrical, among others.  The forensic engineer directing the investigation – usually from the discipline thought at the beginning to be most relevant to the problem, would retain other specialists as required by different facets of the problem.  I’ve done that often enough during my forensic engineering investigations.

Most forensic engineers have higher, specialist degrees in engineering and decades of experience.  They are usually retained by counsel for the plaintiff or defendant in a dispute, by claim’s managers with insurance firms, and occasionally by the court.

Anything can fail, break and fall down

Anything in the built environment can fail – buildings and their different components, including environmental components like fuel oil tanks, and civil engineering structures like bridges, roads, dams, towers, wharves, and earthworks.

Also, anything in the natural environment can fail – natural slopes, river banks, coast lines, flooding protection, subsidence protection, and erosion and sediment control.

The infra structure servicing these building and civil engineering structures can fail – infra structure like water distribution and sewage collection systems, pipe lines, power distribution systems, and tunnels.

Typical forensic engineering investigations

Forensic engineering experts might investigate why:

  • a building settled,
  • a building caught on fire and burned,
  • a bridge collapsed,
  • a dam washed out,
  • oil spilled contaminating the ground,
  • ice fell injuring a pedestrian,
  • a worker fell off a ladder and died,
  • a fatal traffic accident occurred after hitting a pile of salt on the road,
  • foundation underpinning does not appear adequate,
  • land or a basement flooded,
  • a land slide occurred,
  • etc.

The majority of failures that are investigated by forensic engineers are quite ordinary, at least in the engineering world, and are not ongoing, news-grabbing events.

Assisting the court

If the dispute can’t be resolved and it goes to trial the forensic engineer as an expert presents and explains the evidence, facts, and opinions to help the judge or jury understand the technical issues so that the verdict will be proper within the law.

In a dispute resulting in civil litigation, it is the role of the forensic engineering expert to objectively provide evidence, regardless of whether it favours the plaintiff or the defendant.


  1. Association of Soil and Foundation Engineers (ASFE), Expert: A guide to forensic engineering and service as an expert witness, 1985
  2. Cooper, Chris, Forensic Science, DK Publishing, New York, 2008
  3. Suprenant, Ph.D., P.E., Bruce A., Ed., Forensic Engineering, Vol. 1, Number 1, Pergamon Press, 1987
  4. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Guidelines for Failure Investigation, 1989
  5. Lewis, Gary L., Ed., American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Guidelines for Forensic Engineering Practice, 2003

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