It’s better still when you watch the forensic engineer do some of his work. We learn by seeing and doing – something like 80% to 85% of what we know is got visually. At the very least, you will better understand your expert’s explanation of the cause of the accident or failure.
I was reminded of this recently when a client indicated that he got a lot sitting and watching me work. I think he was quite taken by what he saw and I was impressed that he wanted to go to the scene with me. He resolved his case based in part on what he experienced that day and the pictures he took. I wasn’t required to give even a verbal report let alone a written report.
I was also reminded of the benefit of a site visit when I met and spoke with a forensic photographer recently – photographs, the next best thing to being there, and also good for refreshing your memory of a site visit – and when I read a short manual on forensic photography. (Ref. I)
Counsel, we don’t see you at the scene very often. I can think of only four times in recent years. Engineers swear by the worth of a visual assessment of a site. (Refs 2 to 6) You are also certain to get a lot from going to the scene.
What does Counsel see when s/he goes on site? Aside from picking up a valuable concrete impression of the scene of the accident or failure?
1. Slip and Fall Accident Counsel and the injured party sat and watched me use non-textbook methods to investigate the cause of a slip and fall accident. I tested the skid resistance of the floor using pork belly – a pig’s belly skin, to simulate the injured party’s bare feet. This was recommended by medical doctors and veterinarians.
There was also a question about the source of water on a floor that was supposed to be dry. I thought earlier about a shower in a dressing room but it was some distance away. Still, maybe. So I put my bathing suit on that I had with me, took a shower and walked to the area of the fall – dripping water along the way and on the “dry” area.
My client got an eye-full during his site visit.
2. Inadequate Underpinning A young lawyer watched me excavate and expose the underpinning of a building using a backhoe and manual labour – me doing the manual work, during three days of investigative site work. She also watched me examine the underpinning closely, and measure and photograph it. Real dirty hands and muddy boot work.
I tried to get her down into the muddy excavation to see up close one of the worst deficiencies of the inadequate underpinning but that was too much for her. Still she saw it from the edge of the excavation and reported back to her manager. I’m certain she will remember that site experience and be guided by it if she practices civil litigation.
Her manager was to be commended sending her to the site. It would have been much better if he had got out there – the one arguing the case, but at least someone did.
3. Foundation Failure The owner’s lawyer held meetings in an industrial building that was supported on foundations that were still settling and damaging the building 10 years after construction. He saw the building and the cracks in the walls up close. He got visual impressions that helped him understand the report I wrote on the extent and cause of problem.
Unfortunately he was not there when I strengthened the foundation soils by grouting – a ground improvement technique not often seen in Atlantic Canada.
4. Flooding Counsel came to the site and saw the flooded land and the unusual source of some of the flood water. I later took low level, oblique aerial photographs with a camera mounted on a drone – the first time I used this technique, and gave them to the lawyer to refresh his memory of what he saw when he was on site. He didn’t say but I know it benefited him. Hard not to.
I’m certain the lawyers in these cases understood my explanation of the technical issues much better after being on site, and also argued their cases more effectively.
It’s not a substitute for Counsel visiting the scene of an accident or failure but low level aerial photographs are making the expert’s job of informing the justice system much easier. They’re that good.
They could also entice Counsel to go to the scene more often, see for himself and get a little mud on his boots if not dirt on his hands. The young lawyer above – standing at the edge of the excavation, got the former but not the latter. Nevertheless, she benefited just being there.
- Matthews, Kenneth M., Pink, Joel E., Tupper, Allison D., and Wells, Alvin E., The Expert, a Practitioner’s Guide, Chapter 15 (by Tupper, Allison D) Use of Forensic Photographs at Trial and Chapter 15A Use of Photographs and Photographic Interpretation, an example – R. v. McGillivray Carswell Publishing 1995
- “Technical” visual site assessments: Valuable, low cost, forensic engineering method. Posted September 4, 2012
- An expert’s “dirty hands and muddy boots”. Posted December 20, 2013
- The messiness of some forensic engineering and insurance investigations is illustrated by messy snow banks. Posted April 14, 2015
- More about messy, lumpy Mother Nature and how we deal with her effect on our forensic engineering and insurance investigations. Posted April 23, 2015
- The justice system and messy construction sites – Seeing is believing. Posted December 17, 2015