Advocates, insurers and property owners, become aware!

I initially thought Buyer beware! as a title for this blog but that would be a poor choice of words because you’re not at risk of being cheated when you retain a forensic expert.  You are at risk of thinking an expert knows everything

And related, also at risk of misunderstanding the tasks a forensic expert must carry out in conforming to good practice when investigating a failure or accident.  Misunderstanding leads to crankiness as experienced by a couple of my clients.

You need to learn a little something about these tasks.  And why s/he must do them, and why it’s difficult to estimate the cost of some of them.  If we follow the evidence, we don’t even know about some of these tasks until our boots are on the ground.

Learn something about the following:

  • The building or civil engineering structure involved in the expert’s work
  • The stages and tasks in a forensic investigation

Become aware of the following:

All buildings and civil engineering structures in the built and natural environments have basic components that experts can name for you.  For example, they all have foundations, and also beams and columns.  And do you know?  A structure’s basement – like your house basement, for example, or that of a multi-story building – is the most complicated component of all – not very glamourous, just the most complicated. (Ref. 1)

All forensic engineering investigations have basic stages and tasks that are described in simple, non-technical language on this site and in engineering guidelines. (Refs 2, 3 and 4)  Some examples: 1) The document-review stage, 2) The visual-examination-of-the-site stage, 3) The recording-the-as-built-condition-of-a-component state, 4) Noting the as-failed-condition-of-a-structure stage, and 5) In a slip and fall accident, testing-the-skid-resistance-of-a-floor stage.  And all are carried out to an engineering standard of care.

We can estimate the cost of known tasks with varying degrees of accuracy – from easy and accurate to very difficult and quite inaccurate. (Refs 5, 6)  It’s the unknown tasks that crop up when we follow the evidence and look under the next rock that cause grief for all parties involved in a dispute.

The following nice people thought I knew everything:

Example #1: A client was surprised that I met with a contractor on site and charged a fee for this.  I was there to brief the contractor on the project and confirm how he would tackle the several stages involving different structures.  It was somewhat of an exotic project and nowhere to be found in the engineering textbooks.  I can specify an end result but it behoves me to make certain the contractor knows how to get there.

“I thought you knew everything!” my client remarked.  A nice way to be seen but we don’t know everything – we do know how to figure things out though.

Example #2: Another time a client was surprised when I charged for “researching” an issue –  safety criteria in a slip and fall accident.  There’s little guidance in the building code on this type of problem but lots of literature in North America and Europe.  I had to figure out how it applied to my particular case.  Again, “I thought you knew everything!”.  Nice thought.

Example #3: I’m trying now to determine if the site of an old fuel oil spill is still contaminated.  The spilling stopped about 27 years ago when the underground storage tanks were removed.  It’s fairly easy to learn the direction the oil flowed when it was carried away by the groundwater.

It’s something else to learn where the oil ended up and if the ground is still contaminated at that location.  I do know that natural attenuation has reduced the amount of oil in the ground but whether or not to an acceptable level is difficult to determine.

Natural attenuation is a complex process and there’s little or no expertise readily available because the problem doesn’t crop up often.  Should I get compensated for trying to find an expert in eastern Canada, the USA or farther afield because “I don’t know everything”?

(Natural attenuation involves microorganisms in soil eating the oil – it’s food to them.  There are five processes in natural attenuation but this is a main one)

Example #4: Somewhat related were the geotechnical investigations I carried out for new wharf and breakwater construction in harbours on Canada’s east coast.  About 27 investigations over several years.  My clients wouldn’t cover my expenses to travel to a harbour and reconnoiter conditions before estimating the cost of the work.

For example, reconnoiter the sea conditions we had to work in – sometimes quite exposed and dangerous -, investigate coastal conditions from which we had to launch a barge with a drill rig onboard, and check out the possible foundation soil conditions as exposed along the coast.

Surely I would not be expected to “know everything” about a harbour without seeing it and talking with the local fishermen?  And surely It’s not unreasonable to charge a fee for this?


When I suggest you learn a little something, I don’t mean you should learn a lot and pass a test.  Just gain some understanding and become aware of the tasks an expert must carry out, and to the standard of care for the time and place.

The recent case, Example #1, where I met the contractor on site consisted of seven big tasks.  Three quite large, different tasks plus three less-big tasks that prepared site conditions for a main task.  The main task also had a poorly defined scope that made matters worse.  All big tasks with expertise in the area but none that are done on even a half yearly basis, year after year.  And when the seven tasks were lumped together, this type of seven-big-task project was unusual for this area.

I would hardly expect you to learn much about a project like this but learn something and that it’s demanding of an expert’s time, including figuring-out and occasional research time.

Learn a little something about “the nature and methods of forensic engineering investigation” like it says in the masthead of this blog site.  Also the structure(s) involved and its components.  Forensic experts can give you a good understanding in most cases, except when we’ve got to follow the evidence and don’t know what we’re going to find until we get there.


  1. Swinton, Michael, NRC-IRC and Kesik, Ted, PhD, University of Toronto, Performance Guidelines for Basement Envelope Systems and Materials, Research Report 199, pp 185, National Research Council, Canada October 2005
  2. Steps in the Forensic Engineering Investigative Process With an Appendix on Costs.  Posted July 15, 2013
  3. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Guidelines for Failure Investigation, 1989
  4. Janney, Jack R., Guide to Investigation of Structural Failure, ASCE, 1986
  5. Difficulty Estimating the Cost of Forensic Engineering Investigation.  Posted July 23, 2013
  6. Why the Difficulty Estimating the Cost of Forensic Engineering Investigation?  Posted September 1, 2013


  1. Lewis, Gary L., Guidelines for forensic engineering practice, ed., ASCE 2003
  2. A Bundle of Blogs: How to Manage the Cost of Civil Litigation Involving Experts.   Posted August 31, 2017