Forensic engineering investigation of a fatal MVA. Update

(The following is one in a series of cases I have investigated that illustrate the different forensic engineering methods I use to investigate the cause of failures and accidents that result in civil litigation. 

The update is a very detailed, informative, easy to read – I think, description of the methods used to investigate the fatal motor vehicle accident (MVA).  The description reads a little like a story which I think makes for an interesting blog on a forensic engineering investigation – we engineers are not well known as rapt story tellers.

A briefer version of this case was published earlier with a list of the methods I used.  It’s a good case for illustrating how an engineering investigation sometimes unfolds, going, in a sense, from not knowing at the start about what to do to solve the problem to getting on with it, figuring it out, and solving it.

Original blog updated

The investigation of the fatal MVA is reported under the following main headings with several sub-headings:

  • The case (a description of the fatal MVA, the legal/technical issues, and my client)
  • Forensic engineering investigation of the failure and the methods used
  • Preliminary findings of the investigation
  • Post mortem (resolution and lessons learned)

The case

Description of fatal motor vehicle accident (MVA)

The accident occurred a few years ago on a remote, snow-covered highway along the top of a seaside cliff in eastern Canada.  A jeep-like vehicle travelling along the highway at dawn struck a pile of soil-like material left in the travel lane.  The driver lost control of the vehicle and drove over the cliff and into the sea.  The driver died in the accident.  Passengers in the vehicle survived.

Legal/Technical issues

At issue, for purposes of the forensic engineering investigation, was the following:

  1. Whether or not the pile of material on the highway was a hazard
  2. If it was, determine the degree or severity of the hazard
  3. Also, whether or not the pile of material caused the accident

Client

I was retained by the RCMP to investigate the accident and resolve the technical issues.

Forensic engineering investigation

Unique investigation

The investigation was unique in that there were no guidelines or well developed methods in the engineering literature on how to investigate this type of accident and address the technical issues.

Fortunately, in researching the literature, I did find some very relevant scientific research on speed bump design that I was able to adapt to my problem with excellent results.

My forensic engineering investigation relied on the following methods.  The methods are described below in detail.  I believe the following listing of methods is quite informative by itself:

  1. Take briefing on the accident from the RCMP
  2. Review documents on the accident provided by the RCMP including police reports and survivor’s statements
  3. Travel to the area and visually examine the scene of the accident
  4. Generate a picture of the accident scene using Photoshop as it might have been seen by the driver moments before the accident
  5. Research engineering literature for methods on the investigation of obstructions on a highway
  6. Research scientific literature on speed bump research and design
  7. Research transportation authorities in North America and Europe
  8. Design a full scale preliminary re-enactment of the accident on bare roads
  9. Plan a full scale re-enactment of the accident on a snow-covered test site implementing refinements to the re-enactment including safety measures derived from the preliminary testing
  10. Design a videotaping and measuring of the re-enactment
  11. Construct a full scale test site on an airport taxiway
  12. Re-enact and videotape the accident on the test site
  13. Analyse the videotape for evidence respecting the technical issues
  14. Edit the videotape to portray the re-enactment in a report
  15. Report on the preliminary findings including safety issues

Description of forensic engineering investigative methods for a fatal MVA

1. Take briefing on the accident from the RCMP

The RCMP’s briefing described the accident scene, the accident, and their staff’s assessment of the speed the jeep was travelling at the time it struck the pile of material on the highway.  The briefing was supported by photographs of the scene, the pile of material on the road, and the truck that deposited the material on the highway.  Survivor’s statements on the accident taken by the police were included in the supporting documents.     .

The RCMP wanted a forensic engineering investigation to determine what part, if any, the pile of material had in the fatal accident.  Very specifically, investigate the technical issues as noted above.

2. Review documents on the accident provided by the RCMP including police reports and survivor’s statements

Reviewing existing documents and examining photographs is a standard first step in the forensic engineeing investigative process.

The police reports were quite valuable in describing:

  • How the truck deposited the material on the highway,
  • The dimensions of the pile – the width of a traffic lane long, several feet wide and several inches high,
  • The range of speeds the vehicle was possibly travelling, and the most likely speed
  • The time of the accident
  • The snow-covered road conditions at the time, and
  • The lighting conditions (dawn).

I read the survivor’s statements but these did not yield any data relevant to the technical issues.

While reading the documents and afterwards I sort of brain-stormed the situation and jotted down all and sundry that came to mind.  It wasn’t long that I realized this was quite simply an obstacle on the highway.  I figured there would be lots of information in the engineering and scientific literature on how to investigate different obstacles on and near highways and their effect on vehicle travel.  I soon found out that I was wrong.

3. Travel to the area and visually examine the scene of the accident

This is also one of the standard, invaluable, initial steps in the engineering investigative process (see Ref. 1).

I drove to the scene of the accident and simply walked and looked at the part of the route travelled by the jeep.  I was struck by the straight alignment of the highway and the uninterrupted line of sight for several hundred metres in the approach to the scene of the accident.

Why wasn’t the pile of material seen by the jeep’s driver well enough in advance to stop, even on snow-covered roads?

4. Generate a picture of the accident scene using Photoshop as it might have been seen by the driver moments before the accident

I took photographs of the highway while on site.  There was snow on the ground in the area during my visit but not on the highway.

I had a photographer take one of the photographs and using Photoshop “colour in” the bare highway with “snow” to give it that snow-covered look existing at the time of the accident.  The photographer also added a feature to represent the pile of material on the highway.  The material was light in colour like snow or very light quartz sand.

The technique is called ”cloning” in photography when a small element of colour is taken from one part of a photograph and added to another.  In this case many small elements of the white snow in my photograph were taken and placed on the bare highway to give it that snow-covered look.  Additional elements were taken to build a feature that looked like the pile of material struck by the vehicle.

The touched-up photograph was very realistic in portraying the snow-covered road with the almost invisible pile of light coloured material in the driver’s lane.  Invisible until just moments before the pile was struck by the jeep.

The pile of material was seen by the driver in those last moments as suggested by the angled tire tracks on the pile.  The tracks indicated the driver braked and skidded sideways on the snow-covered road just before the pile was driven over.

5. Research engineering literature for methods on the investigation of obstructions on a highway

I had a technical library research the literature in North America and overseas for methods of investigating obstructions on highways and the effects of these on drivers.  Nothing specific was found but we did come across a reference to research on speed bump design.

I had that Eureka..!! moment when I realized that a pile of material several inches high on a highway was a ”speed bump”.

6. Research scientific literature on speed bump research and design

I went back to the technical library and searched the literature on speed bump research and design in Canada, the U.S., England, and Australia.  I struck gold.  I found original research papers on work carried out in California.  One paper was quite detailed in describing the precise layout of a test site.  An objective of the research was the evaluation of the effects of different configurations and heights of speed bump on the control of vehicles travelling at different speeds.

This was precisely my situation: The effect of a speed-bump-like pile of material on the control of a vehicle on a highway.  I had my forensic engineering investigative method.

7. Research transportation authorities in North America and Europe

I was asked to evaluate the severity of the pile of material as a hazard – if it was found to be such.

I went back to researching the scientific literature, particularly the various transportation authorities and agencies for information on assessing the severity of hazards on our highways.  Groups like these set the standards for our highways.  I found reference to “severity indexes”.

I did not pursue this research because, as you are certain to appreciate, I was starting other tasks in the engineering investigation, particularly planning, design and construction of a “speed bump” test site.

As you will see in the following, I did not need a severity index classification system to tell the RCMP that the pile of material involved in the accident was a hazard and a severe one.

8. Design a full scale preliminary re-enactment of the accident on bare roads

I decided to carry out a full scale re-enactment of the accident, initially on bare roads in the interests of safety.  I wanted to learn how the vehicle would behave on bare roads and use the data to refine the design before planning to carry out similar tests on more dangerous snow-covered roads.

A full scale field test that simulates conditions during an accident – a re-enactment, is simple, practical, visual, and the results are easy to understand/see by non-technical people.

My design consisted of a simple modification of the speed bump research sites that I found in the literature.  The modification included the dimensions of the pile of material and the highway lane width at the accident site.  It was a fairly simple design to think through and portray in a drawing to guide construction.

The design consisted of the lane of a “highway” with the pile of material and its dimensions shown on the drawing part way along the lane.

The area of the lane beyond the down-highway end of the pile of material was marked off in one foot graduations across the lane.  Like a large ruler on the lane.

Similar graduations were marked off on a large sheet of plywood but at six inch intervals.  This was to form a vertical ruler set off to the side of the lane opposite the pile of material.

The test lane was about 400 feet long with the pile of material near the middle.  The lane was made the same width as at the accident site.  The pile was cone-shaped in section along the lane.  It extended across the lane and about 10 feet along the lane.  The pile was about 15 inches high.

The re-enactment would involve driving the jeep-like vehicle down the lane at different speeds and over the pile of material.  It was expected the jeep would be airborne after hitting the pile of material, as found during the speed bump research.  The rulers would measure how high and how far the jeep travelled airborne before landing back on the lane.  It was expected that the height and distance would vary depending on the speed.

9. Plan a full scale re-enactment of the accident on a snow covered test site implementing refinements to the re-enactment including safety measures derived from the preliminary testing

This was the plan – taking full scale testing in stages – first on a bare road then on a snow-covered road, and learning as we progressed.  But testing wasn’t carried out on a snow-covered site for a very good reason as explained below.

10. Design a videotaping and measuring of the re-enactment

It was decided to film the field tests to get a record of the jeep’s behaviour as it drove down the test lane and over the pile of material.  The filming would also record the measured height and distance the vehicle would be airborne during the test.

A camerman would be stationed opposite the pile of material to record the height and the distance the jeep travelled airborne.  Another was to be positioned in the bucket of a boom truck down the lane and approximately 50 feet above the lane to film a birds-eye view of the travel of the vehicle as it drove over the pile of material and on down the lane.  A third was to ride in the jeep with the driver to record the behaviour of the vehicle as experienced by the driver.

Finally, a camerman was to fly over the test site in a helicopter to record the layout of the test site.  The camerman would also film the vehicle stationary on the pile of material at the angle suggested by the tracks in the pile at the accident site.  The RCMP provided the helicopter.

11. Construct a full scale test site on an airport taxiway

A full scale test site was constructed on an airport taxiway according to the design and dimensions described above.  Permission to use the taxiway was arranged by the RCMP.

12. Re-enact and videotape the accident on the test site

Tests were carried out and filmed driving the vehicle over the pile of material at speeds of 20 km/hr initially and then at 30 km/hr.  The jeep was driven across the pile at right angles instead of at an angle as thought to have occurred during the accident. 

Tests were planned at higher speeds including the 50 km/hr travelled by the vehicle during the accident as concluded by the RCMP.  These tests were postponed because they would have been too dangerous without safety provisions for the driver.

I drove the vehicle during the tests.  I was struck by the erratic behaviour of the jeep on driving over the pile of material at 30 km/hr and the measure of difficulty controlling the jeep to avoid hitting the boom truck down lane. 

13. Analyse the videotape for evidence respecting the technical issues

It was enough experiencing the erratic and dangerous behaviour of the jeep during the test at 30 km/hr on bare highway, and viewing this on film, to conclude that the pile of material was a hazard on a snow-covered highway at 50 km/hr.  This resolved Technical issue #1 above.

There was insufficient information to assess the severity of the risk except to suspect it was high by whatever standard of evaluation was used.  Technical issue #2.

There was insufficient information to conclude if the pile of material caused the fatal MVA.  Technical issue #3.

14. Edit the videotape to portray the re-enactment in a report

There was approximately 30 minutes of film recorded by the three cameramen during the testing in this case.  This was edited to approximately 4 minutes for each camera and transferred to a DVD with voice overlay describing what was being viewed in each of three windows.  The DVD accompanied a report on the testing.

15. Report on the preliminary findings including safety issues

A report was prepared on the testing generally as outlined above.  The report basically concluded that it was too dangerous to continue the testing without safety precaustions for the driver. 

The report was presented to the RCMP and reviewed in a meeting.  The RCMP stopped the testing all together stating, “You’ve told us all we need to know”.  Presumably, the testing addressed all the technical issues to the satisfaction of the client.

Cause

The RCMP indicated, by stopping the forensic engineering investigation at the conclusion of an abbreviated preliminary stage, that the technical issues had been resolved and that they knew the cause of the fatal MVA.

Post mortem

The matter was settled out of court.

Lessons learned

1. The importance of researching the scientific and engineering literature.  It’s easy today and there’s lots out there.

2. Full scale field tests are practical, and the results are easy to see and understand by non-technical people.

3. Professional cameramen should be retained to film all field testing, particularly cases where movement is involved.

4. The value of generating a picture of the scene of an accident or an engineering failure at the time of the incident using programs like Photoshop.

References

1. “Technical” visual site assessments: Valuable, low cost, forensic engineering method.  My blog posted on this site, September 4, 2012

The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel during Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR). Update

(This is an update of an item I posted in November, 2012 – see Ref. 11 below, as part of a series on the role of a professional engineer assisting counsel in civil litigationsee Bibliography below.

The update consists of three case histories of forensic engineering investigations that provided evidence relied on in Alternate Dispute Resolution.  The case histories are in italics)

Original article updated with three case histories

Alternate dispute resolution, ADR, refers to resolving disputes in ways other than going to court.

The role of professional engineers in ADR is to provide technical data, conclusions and opinions as to the cause of engineering failures, industrial, traffic and aviation accidents, and slips, trips and falls.  This type of information contributes to intelligent decisions as a basis for the resolution of disputes with technical issues.

This blog, one of a series, lists the tasks – itemized below, of a professional engineer’s role in ADR

In some areas, over 90% of lawsuits involving the built environment settle before going to trial, and this is often facilitated with evidence from forensic engineering investigations.

ADR can be carried out at any stage in civil litigation – even before an action is filed.  Once an action is commenced, ADR can still occur at any point but is mainly used after document production and discoveries have taken place.  At that point, each party is more fully aware of the other side’s case.  Each party has more information to assess the merits of the case, the strengths and weaknesses for both parties, and the likely outcome if proceeding through to trial. As such, ADR becomes relevant as the parties know better where each side stands.

There are three commonly used methods of ADR.  Other forms of alternate dispute resolution are used but the following are particularly relevant to civil litigation.

  • Negotiation
  • Mediation
  • Arbitration

All forms of ADR rely on a presentation of facts, and resolution based in part on a consideration of the facts.

A professional engineer’s services are generally the same regardless of the ADR method selected by the client.

  1. Review and examine all technical documentation, electronic data, physical evidence, tangible exhibits, demonstrative evidence, and transcripts of proceedings on the case
  2. Visit and briefly re-examine the site
  3. Review and confirm the forensic engineering investigations carried out by the different parties to the dispute, the data and technical evidence gathered, the analyses and reasoning, the findings, the technical facts, the conclusions, and the opinions formed on the cause of the engineering failure, poor structural performance, or personal injury/fatal accident
  4. Review estimated costs to repair the damaged structure
  5. Review the claims and the technical strengths and weaknesses of each party to the dispute, including counter claims and cross claims
  6. Review the technical facts given in support of each party’s position and the technical evidence supporting the facts
  7. Confer with counsel about their clear understanding of the technical evidence from the forensic engineering investigation, the technical facts supported by the evidence, and the technical issues on which the claim, defence, and counter claims are based
  8. Prepare to testify as an expert witness if required
  9. Provide the hearing with technical data and information to facilitate an understanding of the technical issues
  10. Interpret and explain technical issues to a mediator or arbitrator
  11. Serve as a mediator or arbitrator if the dispute has technical issues
  12. Assist counsel in assessing technical elements in offers made by different parties to facilitate settlement

Negotiation

In negotiation, participation is voluntary and there is usually no third party who facilitates the process or suggests a solution.

If an individual or a firm has a disagreement with another they may get together to discuss the problem and reach a mutual agreement.  This way the parties can work out a solution that best meets the needs and interests of all parties.

In some cases individual parties may also prefer to hire a lawyer or a counselor who has the expertise to help a firm to negotiate or who can negotiate on behalf of the firm.

Mediation

In mediation, there is a trained, neutral third party, a mediator, who facilitates the resolution process (and may even suggest a solution) but does not impose a solution on the parties, unlike judges.  Mediation often leads to resolutions that are tailored to the needs of all parties.  The process is informal and completely confidential.  As a result parties may speak more openly than in court.

Case #1: Oil tank failure: An example of a dispute that was resolved in mediation would be a residential fuel oil tank falling into an excavation for a basement and spilling fuel oil onto the ground.  The homeowner and their insurance company send letters to the excavating company stating they were responsible for the incident and asking the company to pay for the clean-up of the contaminated ground.  The company does not agree and a mediation is scheduled. 

      Counsel for the homeowner retained the author who reviewed documentation on the case, including photographs, applied very basic soil mechanics principles – one of the sciences that underlies foundation engineering, to the field situation and explained in a report why the tank fell into the excavation.  Agreement was subsequently reached in the mediation.

Arbitration

In arbitration, participation is typically voluntary, and there is a third party who, as a private judge, imposes a resolution.  At an arbitration hearing, a party to a dispute may have a representative speak on their behalf.

Arbitration may occur when parties have a dispute that they cannot resolve themselves and agree to refer the matter to arbitrators.  Arbitration can also occur because parties to contracts agree that any future dispute concerning an agreement will be resolved by arbitration.

Arbitrators are often people who are experts in a specific area of the law or a particular industry, for example, engineering.

The arbitrator makes a decision based on the facts, any contracts between the parties in dispute, and the applicable laws.  The arbitrator will explain how the decision was reached.

If the applicable law allows, parties can decide in advance whether the arbitrator’s decision will be final and binding or whether it can be submitted to a court for review if a party disagrees with the decision.

Case #2: Foundation failure The author was retained well before civil litigation was begun to investigate the cause of cracks in the concrete block walls of a food processing facility in an industrial park.  The cracks continued to appear 10 years after construction of the facility. 

      Engineering investigation involved surveying the location and size of the cracks, precise elevation surveys, researching earthworks construction during development of the park, and a geotechnical investigation of the foundation soil conditions. 

      Analysis of the data concluded that the cracks were caused by foundation settlement in a poorly constructed fill.  The fill was grouted to increase its rigidity and stop the settlement.  The several parties involved in the action settled a multimillion dollar claim out of court.

Case #3: Bridge failure Another case that began early in the litigation process required the author to investigate the cause of a 22 foot span soil-steel bridge to fail.  The bridge – a large, corrugated steel culvert, carried a residential road over a stream.  A large hole formed in the road above the bridge when it collapsed injuring the driver of a car when they drove into the hole.

      The collapsed bridge was disposed of and a new bridge constructed before the author examined the site, making the investigation more difficult.  Several follow-up investigations were carried out.  The following were particularly valuable: Study of photographs taken on the day the bridge failed, examination of other steel culverts in the immediate area, a topographic survey of the site, and review of the documented modes of failure of these types of bridges. 

      Analysis of the data concluded that the bridge failed because of corrosion of the haunches of the steel culvert and inadequate inlet protection.  The parties involved in the civil litigation settled without going to trial.

Biliography

  1. What is forensic engineering?, published, November 20, 2012
  2. Writing forensic engineering reports, published, November 6, 2012
  3. Steps in the civil litigation process, published, August 28, 2012
  4. Steps in the forensic engineering investigative process, published October 26, 2012
  5. The role of a professional engineer in counsel’s decision to take a case, published June 26, 2012
  6. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare a Notice of Claim, published July 26, 2012
  7. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare a Statement of Claim, published September 11, 2012
  8. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare a Statement of Defence, published September 26, 2012
  9. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare an Affidavit of Documents, published October 4, 2012
  10. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel during Discovery, published October 16, 2012
  11. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel during Alternate Dispute Resolutionn (ADR), published November 16, 2012
  12. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare for a Settlement Conference, published November 29, 2012
  13. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare for a Trial Date Assignment Conference, published December 12, 2012
  14. The role of a professional engineer assisting counsel prepare for Trial, published, December 19, 2012
  15. Built Expressions, Vol. 1, Issue 12, December 2012, Argus Media PVT Ltd., Bangalore, E: info@builtexpressions.com, info@argusmediaindia.com

 

 

Forensic engineering investigation of a fatal MVA

(The following is one in a series of cases I have investigated that illustrate the different forensic engineering methods I use to investigate the cause of failures and accidents that result in civil litigation.  The methods are listed in this blog and described in some detail in a future posting)

The investigation of the fatal motor vehicle accident (MVA) is reported under the following main headings with several sub-headings:

  • The case (a description of the fatal MVA, the legal/technical issues, and my client)
  • Forensic engineering investigation of the failure and the methods used
  • Preliminary findings of the investigation
  • Post mortem (resolution and lessons learned)

The case

Description of fatal motor vehicle accident (MVA)

The accident occurred a few years ago on a remote, snow-covered highway along the top of a seaside cliff in eastern Canada.  A jeep-like vehicle travelling along the highway at dawn struck a pile of soil-like material left in the travel lane.  The driver lost control of the vehicle and drove over the cliff and into the sea.  The driver died in the accident.  Passengers in the vehicle survived.

Legal/Technical issues

At issue, for purposes of the forensic engineering investigation, was the following:

  • Whether or not the pile of material on the highway was a hazard
  • If it was, determine the degree or severity of the hazard
  • Also, whether or not the pile of material caused the accident

Client

I was retained by the RCMP to investigate the accident and resolve the technical issues.

Forensic engineering investigation

There were no guidelines or well developed methods in the engineering literature on how to investigate this type of accident and resolve the technical issues.  The investigation was unique in this respect.

Fortunately, in researching the literature, I did find some very relevant scientific research that I was able to adapt to my problem with excellent results.

My forensic engineering investigation relied on the following methods.  The methods will be described in some detail in a future posting.  I believe the following listing of methods is quite informative by itself:

  1. Take briefing on the accident from RCMP
  2. Review documents on the accident provided by the RCMP including police reports and survivor’s statements
  3. Travel to the area and visually examine the scene of the accident
  4. Generate a picture of the accident scene using Photoshop as it might have been seen by the driver moments before the accident
  5. Research engineering literature for methods on the investigation of obstructions on a highway
  6. Research scientific literature on speed bump research and design
  7. Research transportation authorities in North America and Europe
  8. Design a full scale preliminary re-enactment of the accident on bare roads
  9. Plan a full scale re-enactment of the accident on a snow covered test site implementing refinements to the re-enactment including safety measures derived from the preliminary testing
  10. Design a videotaping and measuring of the re-enactment
  11. Construct a re-enactment site on an airport taxiway
  12. Re-enact and videotape the accident on the test site
  13. Analyse the videotape for evidence respecting the technical issues
  14. Edit the videotape to portray the re-enactment in a report
  15. Report on the preliminary findings including safety issues

Description of methods of forensic engineering investigation

(The methods will be described in some detail in a future blog posting)

Cause

(The findings of the investigation will be reported in a future posting)

Post mortem

The matter was settled out of court.

(Lessons learned from the investigation will be shared in the future blog posting)

References

1. “Technical” visual site assessments: Valuable, low cost, forensic engineering method.  My blog posted on this site, September 4, 2012