Why should civil litigation lawyers and experts take an interest in a book on writing well?

I suggested this in last week’s blog.  After all, lawyers are wordsmiths and experts usually have a few decades of experience so both should know how to write well.

The reason is the comprehensive requirements of the civil procedure rule governing the content of an expert’s report.  This rule does not mess around – no legalese here.  It tells experts in clear English what we are to provide the judicial system.

The reason is also the variety and complexity of the engineering problems and personal injury accidents that occur in the built and natural environments.

As a civil engineer, I know about the problems, and I read again a civil procedure rule governing experts in Eastern Canada.

Almost every case we engineers investigate – and lawyers advocate, is different from the one before, and they’re almost all complex.  Reporting on such cases to a strict civil procedure rule – and counsel understanding the report – is demanding of both expert and counsel.

Cases such as:

  • The collapse of an engineering structure, e.g., a dam, bridge, retaining wall, wharf, road, waterway, earthworks, landslide, or the poor performance of one of the structure’s many components.
  • The collapse of a building or the poor performance of one of the 100s of its components.
  • An accident causing property damage, injury or death.
  • A fuel oil spill.
  • An independent peer review of a forensic investigation and report by another.

“The same” cases are different

And when the cases are “the same” – involving one structure, a building, say, they are different.  Each one of a building’s many components can fail.

  • The leaking roofs may be flat, pitched or mansard.
  • The subsiding foundations may be a slab-on-ground, shallow footings or deep piles.
  • Flood water may be coming in through the basement walls, the floor, the utility trenches or from burst water pipes.

Or cases involving slip, trip and fall accidents – one type of accident but every case different.  The person who fell may have been,

  • Standing still, walking or running.
  • On a level or sloping surface.
  • Walking forward or backwards.
  • Walking up or down stairs.
  • Tripping on an obstacle or on their feet.
  • In their bare feet or wearing any one of a variety of different footwear.
  • On any one of many different floor or ground surfaces.

Those are some differences in just one type of structure and one type of accident. Multiply those differences by the hundreds of different structures and different accidents in the built and natural environments – and just imagine.

Everything we investigate and report on is different – every day.  In a sense, we are more “generalist” engineers as opposed to experts, at least in Eastern Canada, and I suspect elsewhere in Canada too.  But, of course, the court decides if any one of us is an expert in a given case.

No surprise then that every report we write is also different, even the simple reports.  And each must be written to the exacting requirements of rules like Section 50.04 Content of an Expert’s Report, Civil Procedure Rules of Nova Scotia.

An example might show the importance of writing even simple reports well when done according to the Rules.

I investigated the underpinning of a building a few years ago.  (Underpinning is a foundation that replaces another for some reason)  I then reported on the adequacy of the underpinning according to Rule 55 in Nova Scotia – and 30 days later got 76 questions back.

The basic forensic engineering investigation was simple.  Dig holes in the ground next to the building and expose the underpinning,  Describe, measure and photograph the type of underpinning.  Do this as well for the deficiencies in the underpinning.  Assess the adequacy of the type of underpinning and also the effects of the deficiencies.

The physical properties of a different material used in the underpinning were also researched but this went along well too.

There was also an odd side issue in the case.  The part of the building above the underpinning – what you see from the street, was not constructed properly, and in a very pronounced and unusual way. This was an even simpler investigation.  I found that the defect was unrelated to the underpinning.

The investigation and reporting were simple yet prompted 76 questions.  Some reflected the questioner’s – probably his expert’s, general lack of knowledge of the technical issues. Others were on a simple word or turn of phase.  A few were good and served resolution of the case quite well.


Writing engineering reports well is not easy – not even simple reports on simple cases. We can all use all the help we can get.  Including books on writing well.

And counsel can too, to ensure that they recognize a well written expert’s report and that they understand the technical issues – hopefully explained in simple, clear, uncluttered, jargon-free English.




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