Unusual data increases reliability in forensic investigation

I mentioned in the last year how you can form an initial hypothesis about the cause of a failure or accident with very little data – a few pictures, some knowledge of construction, etc. (Refs 1, 2, and 3)

And in 2012 how construction inspection and maintenance are weak stages in the design-construction-maintenance life-cycle of a structure.  Less attention is paid to these stages, particularly maintenance. (Refs 4 and 5)

I thought last Friday just how accurate an initial hypothesis can be with some hard, cold data from an unexpected source.  I was reading the National Post about the frequency of elevator failures in Canada as found during an investigation by The Canadian Press. (Ref. 6)

Give a forensic engineer information like the following – or similar data on other problems experienced by your clients - and he’s going to quickly tell you the likely cause of your client’s failure or accident – quickly give you a reliable, initial hypothesis:

“Everyday Canadians are trapped in faulty elevators.  Countless others are inconvenienced.  And it’s getting worse.  More than 12 calls per day to fire fighters last year in Ontario – a total of 4,461.  Double the number of calls in 2001.  It’s a crisis now, not one coming later.

“Toronto led the way last year with about 2,862 rescue calls to 911.  Montreal had 1,532 calls.  Vancouver, 428.  Ottawa, 314 in 2014.

Nancy Lean had a terrifying experience in 2014 as she rode a noisy elevator from the second floor to the basement at York Regional Police Headquarters in Aurora, Ontario.  It jolted when it hit the bottom.  She was okay but she’s nervous in elevators now.” (Ref. 6)

I was also lucky in September, 2014.  I was riding the elevator from an upper floor in Maritime Centre, Halifax – the passport office, when it got stuck mid-floor, high up the building.  We called on the emergency phone and eventually the elevator started moving again and we got off.  I wasn’t nervous and I still use elevators - possibly because many are clean and modern-looking with a nice view of the city from the upper floors.  Some are not, however.

“Insiders told the National Post the real culprit is aging equipment and structural issues, not the increase in elevators.  Maintenance is the problem.

“Thirty years ago a technician serviced 35 to 45 elevators per month for $1,000 per elevator.  Today a maintenance contract is maybe worth $600 and each technician services 100 elevators.  Technicians are loaded up with more and more service calls and have less and less time to do proper maintenance on each.” (Ref. 6)

We don’t need to look far to see the results of poor maintenance in other structures.  An 18 km stretch of Highway #2 outside Moncton, NB, where you are forced into the passing lane because the driving lane is in such poor condition.   A multi-million dollar house in Halifax that has stood empty for several years while the paint peels and the steel railings rust.  A parking garage collapses in Elliot Lake, Ontario.  A bridge falls down in Cape Breton.

Knowing the design and construction process and getting windfall data like that in the National Post makes for an easy call by the forensic engineer on the cause of an elevator failure – a reliable, initial hypothesis.

It’s important during forensic work to be alert to the availability of data from atypical engineering sources at the initial stage of an investigation.

It’s still just initial thoughts on cause – and subject to revision, but quite reliable considering the nature and source of the data in this case.  Reliability is important when counsel is assessing the merits of a case at the start of civil litigation, or a manager is assessing an insurance claim.


  1. Wind, construction crane and inadequate cross-bracing caused Edmonton bridge failure. An initial hypothesis.  Posted March 27, 2015
  2. Bridge failure in litigation due to inadequate bracing – City of Edmonton.  But, inadequate for what?  Posted March 15, 2016
  3. Thinking about the cause of “wavey”, sagging floors in a building and how Counsel benefits.  Posted April 6, 2016
  4. Cause of the roof collapse at Elliot Lake.  Posted July 10, 2012
  5. “Maintenance”: The Achilles’ heel of the built environment, and sometimes the cause of failures and accidents.  Posted June 12, 2014
  6. Perkel, Colin, What goes up doesn’t always come down.  National Post, page 1, July 22, 2016 reporting on an investigation by The Canadian Press.

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