Peer review in forensic engineering and civil litigation

Peer review is needed

We need peer review in forensic engineering to further ensure that the most thorough investigation is carried out and the most thorough, reliable, and objective technical evidence, opinions, and explanations are provided the justice system.  The court and counsel would learn from the knowledge and experience of more than one expert who would in a sense contribute to a single opinion on the technical issues (Ref. 1).

It’s needed.  I’ve read four poorly written ‘expert’ reports in the last while based on inadequate investigation and reasoning – really, very little investigation in most cases, and no reasoning in all cases.

It’s easy to include a simple form of peer review in forensic engineering

It would be easy to include a simple form of the peer review process in the investigation of a failure or accident in the built environment.  As easy as getting an independent expert to simply read the report of the investigating expert.

From that simple start, gradually move to a more comprehensive process over time.  I’m not quite sure at this stage of my thinking how a comprehensive peer review process would work in forensic engineering, but it would evolve because of the need for it.

Peer review will come in time because of civil procedure rules

The adoption of the peer review process will be driven in part by the increased emphasis on preparation of a report for the justice system - and less emphasis on discovery - arising from civil procedure rules such as Rule 55 in Nova Scotia.

The rule spells out the requirements of the expert.  They are exacting with respect to the expert being thorough, reliable, and objective, and reporting his evidence and reasoning, and also stating what other conclusions might have been drawn from his evidence.

The peer review process would seem to be essential to further ensure that such a requirement is met and the justice system and counsel are properly served.  Professional engineering associations essentially set these same requirements for those practicing in the forensic geotechnical, foundation, and structural engineering fields (Ref. 2 to 5).

The peer review process in science – the source for peer review in engineering

In science, peer review is the process by which an author or researcher’s scholarly work is checked by a group of experts in the same field – his peers, people of similar qualifications, experience, and competence, to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted (Ref. 6).  It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field (Ref. 7).

Put another way, peer review is specifically geared to catch any potential biases of the primary examiner (the forensic engineer), to promote the examiner’s heightened diligence (promote thorough forensic investigation) to pursue each important clue (follow the evidence) and to recognize the clinical significance as it surfaces (objectively accept the findings) (Ref. 1). (my parenthetic additions)

In science, publishers and editors of journals have identified independent experts in different fields who are assigned to review submitted papers on the author’s research.  The independent experts and the author may be known to one another or they may not.  Or only the one may know of the other.

Peer review has been practised a very long time in science and is essential to obtaining good science.  Forensic engineering must receive the same rigid peer review before going to the judge, jury, and counsel to further ensure they get good forensic engineering..

Peer review in forensic engineering

In forensic engineering, at least during initial implementation of the peer review process, the independent expert, or experts, would be a consulting professional engineer - a peer, retained to review the investigation and report by another engineer.  Both engineers would be retained by the same party involved in the action but ideally from separate firms.

The independent expert’s job would be to check that the forensic investigation was carried out according to the standard of care existing at the time.  Also, as stated above in the introduction to this item, to check and further ensure that “the most thorough investigation is carried out and the most thorough, reliable, and objective technical evidence, opinions, and explanations are provided the justice system” in a well written report, a report that would also be reviewed by the independent expert.

This checking of an engineering expert’s work by his or her peer would be easy to implement and would constitute a simple form of peer review.  It’s recommended now in geotechnical, foundation, and structural engineering (Ref. 2 to 5).

The final report by the investigating engineering expert would be his report alone because he would have corrected any agreed deficiencies noted by his peer.


  1. The Forensic Panel, Google
  2. Lewis, Gary L. ed., Guidelines for Forensic Engineering Practice, ASCE, the Association of Civil Engineers, Virginia, 2003
  3. ASCE, Guidelines for Failure Investigation, Virginia, 1989
  4. Ratay, Robert T., Forensic Structural Engineering Handbook, McGraw Hill, New York, 2000
  5. ASFE, Association of Soil and Foundation Engineers, A Guide to Forensic Engineering and Service as an Expert Witness, 1985
  6. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2013
  7. Wikipedia, Google





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