Embarrassing defects in a building designed by architects and engineers

I’m going to tell you about defects in a building designed by architects and engineers.  Defects that should not have occurred and might have resulted in civil litigation in another time and place.

I don’t know whether to feel delighted or embarrassed on finding defects in an addition to a building constructed while I was at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).  I was in the building last fall for a reunion of my engineering class.

I pick delighted because I know that failures occur and finding them reminds us we can’t be too diligent and thorough in our work.  Even well educated, trained and experienced planners, architects, engineers and builders.  We got to be ever-vigilant that we don’t drop the ball in the face of tight budgets and schedules.

Failure occurs when a component of a building or civil engineering structure doesn’t function as it should, has a defect, or collapses completely.

1st Defect

I noticed the first defect years ago when I was studying at UNB.  Construction of an addition undermined the foundations of an existing building causing the foundations to settle and the brick wall in a classroom to crack. (see Appendix) You could see daylight through the 1″ crack (it’s been caulked since).

Cause of 1st defect

The undermining causing the crack was due to the technique used during construction of the foundations to the addition.  The technique is well known, including it’s limitations that must be taken into account. (see Appendix) If not, foundations are undermined and cracks appear in brick walls.  Or worse. (see pictures of a catastrophic failure in Ref. 1)

2nd Defect

I noticed last fall that the floor level of the addition was several inches different from the floor of the older part of the building.  Such a difference in floor level contravenes some guidelines and could be construed as unsafe.  This is the second defect in this building of which I’m aware.

Cause of 2nd defect

The cause of the mismatched floors is certain to have occurred during planning and design of the room height in the addition – an initial hypothesis.  The floor to ceiling height in the existing building was not measured so planning and design could ensure the floor of the addition matched the floor of the existing.  Or it was measured but the information not used.

The difference in floor level would not be due to foundation settlement nor to building shrinkage.  The difference of several inches is just too great.

Two defects in the planning, design and construction of an addition to a building?  Overseered by planners, architects and engineers?  I’m certain someone was embarrassed back then.

No excuse for defects

Two defects in a building – one in the planning and design stage and a second in the construction stage – that should not have occurred.  These potential problems are too well known to experienced planners, architects, engineers and builders and could have been avoided.


  1. (Fairly easy) Estimating the investigative cost of a catastrophic failure.  August 13, 2013



My first “forensic engineering” investigation.

The following is one in a series of cases I have investigated that illustrate the different types of failures and accidents that occur resulting in civil litigation, and the forensic engineering methods I used to investigate the cause.  I investigated this failure when I was studying civil engineering at UNB and hardly knew what a forensic investigation was.

The investigation is reported under the following headings with several sub-heads:

  • The case (a description of the failed structure – significant cracks in a building - the “legal”/technical issues, and my “client”
  • Forensic engineering investigation of the failure and the methods used
  • Cause (of the failure)
  • Post mortem (an interesting side story and a lesson learned)

The case

I carried out my first “forensic engineering” investigation during my 5th year studying civil engineering at UNB.  As a student I had little or no understanding of forensic engineering and wasn’t even qualified as a professional engineer.

Nevertheless, this was a significant and costly building failure but, fortunately, not a catastropic one. (see pictures of a catastrophic failure in Ref. 1 above)

We took some of our lectures in a room on the second floor of a two story brick-walled building on the campus.

One day a 1″ wide, vertical crack appeared in the front, left corner of a wall of the lecture room.  (I measured the caulked crack last fall during our reunion)  You could see daylight through the crack.  This would be significant damage to an existing building

“Legal”/Technical issue

To me as a student with an interest in geotechnical and foundation engineering, the cause of the crack was interesting.  I investigated and reported on the cause to meet the requirements of one of my courses.


My “client” was the professor who was giving the foundation engineering course at UNB.

“Forensic engineering” investigation

My ”forensic engineering” investigation involved the following:

  • Visually examine the exterior of the building
  • Determine construction of the building’s foundations
  • Also construction of the addition to the building
  • Research construction techniques

Visual examination

A visual examination of the exterior of the building found that an addition to the building was being constructed adjoining the existing building.  Construction involved a deep excavation adjacent the existing building.  The sides of the excavation were supported by steel beams and timber planks.

Construction of the building’s foundations

I learned that the existing building was supported on shallow spread footings founded in the natural soils.  Excavating near and well below natural foundation soils requires their lateral support to prevent undermining the soils.  The soils could cave into the excavation - collapse catastrophically - unless properly supported.

Construction of the addition to the engineering building

I learned during my visual examination that the pile and plank, excavation support system installed by the contractor was a soldier pile shoring system.  This system is intended to temporarily support the sides of the excavation and in this way the foundation soils beneath the existing building.

Soldier piles are steel beams installed vertically in the ground at regular intervals of several feet at the side of where an excavation is planned adjacent existing foundations.  The piles are set deeper than the planned depth of the excavation.  The piles are driven vertically in the ground, or installed in previously bored holes eliminating the ground vibration from pile driving.

As the ground is excavated on one side of the piles, wood planks are placed horizontally bridging between the piles to hold the earth back on the other side – to shore up the side of the excavation from caving in.  In this case, the earth at the back is adjacent the earth comprising the foundation soils of the existing building.  The planking or lagging “follows” the excavation down.  This is a soldier pile shoring system.

A soldier pile shoring system is a good support system if constructed properly and its limitations kept in mind.

Research construction technique

I researched the soldier pile shoring system and found that it “gives” or yields a little – deflects along it’s height - when mobilizing its strength to provide support to the soil it is retaining.  The retained soil behind the shoring system gives a little as well - moves sideways and away from the foundation soils to which it is providing lateral support.  This undermines the foundation soils a little causing the soils to settle and the building foundations to settle as well.

This deflection is due to the piles bending along their length.  The piles will also tilt a little if they are not driven or embedded deep enough during installation.

This lateral movement of the shoring system and settlement of the soils and foundations is normal.  It can be negligible – tiny millimetres or less – if the shoring system is properly designed and installed.  The movement can be significant -  centimetres, inches or more – causing damage to the foundations, if the support system is not well designed and installed.

Installing soldier piles by driving them in place causes the soils in the immediate area to vibrate.  Soil settles when it is vibrated.  Anything in the soil – like building foundations - settles as well.


I analysed the data that I had collected – construction of the shoring system and the results of my research - and concluded the cause of the failure and submitted my student engineering report.

In this case the soldier pile system deflected too much causing the foundation soils to yield or move sideways and settle in the process.  This caused the building walls to settle as well and the corners to crack and open up.  The soldier pile deflection was probably due to a combination of the following causes noted above:

  • Vibration of the soils during installation of the piles
  • Tilting of the soldier piles due to shallow embedment
  • Deflection along the length of the piles

Post mortem

I passed my year so I must have got it right.  I understand that some of the engineers who inspected the soldier pile system that failed may have been my professors who had formed a consulting engineering company to do this type of engineering design and inspection work.  Failures occur in spite of the best efforts of the best people.



Figuring out the cause of forensic messes is not easy and takes time

So much of what we do in forensic investigation doesn’t lend itself to clean and tidy text-book investigation and analysis.  It’s messy and difficult to wrestle to the ground as to cause.  It also takes time.

I thought this after I posted a blog two weeks ago on getting hard evidence from soft data; getting the speed of a vehicle in an accident from the images on mobile phones. (Ref. 1)  I blogged at that time on a lecture by Major Adam Cybanski, Ottawa, on a new forensic method for assessing the speed of vehicles in an accident. (Ref. 2)

If you could see some of Adam’s lecture photographs and video showing aircraft, cars and people flying through the air and crashing, you’re certain to wonder: How can you measure and analyse something like that?  Disturbing images.  Surely traumatizing for the forensic investigator to see on site.

There was one picture of an airliner – not the TransAsia flight 235 crash mentioned in the lecture but that one too - nearly vertical in the air, nose down and a few metres from hitting the ground.  An aircraft filled with passengers.

If you could see the condition of some cars after a traffic accident that Dr. Stuart Smith and others in CATAIR investigate, that includes doing crush measurements, you’re certain to wonder about this too. (Ref. 3)  I’ve helped Stu a couple of times do these measurements; not a pretty sight.

Less visually disturbing – unless you are the owner – seeing undulating floor surfaces in multistory buildings or bent steel beams in half-built bridges you might wonder: How can a forensic expert analyse odd failures like these?

I sometimes wonder too and I come from a civil engineering background specializing in geotechnical and foundation work – measuring and engineering the messy ground.  We get it done because we have our models and semi-empirical relationships developed over decades of field observation, research and engineering practice.

Models help us figure out the cause of messy failures and accidents but their development takes time and lots of thought and hypothesizing.  I’m not surprised it took Adam months to get his analysis time down to a few days from a few months. (Ref. 1) In fact, I’m surprised it came together so quickly for him.

These models and analytical procedures show up in textbooks but not right away, not until someone has figured out the mess from a lot of failures.  I had one client surprised that forensic engineers must sometimes research topics for which little is known or vary geographically.  He thought we knew everything – a nice image.


(CATAIR; the Canadian Association of Technical Accident Investigators and Reconstructionists)

(Model: A set of ideas and numbers, based on existing data, that describe the past, present or future state of something.  For example, how the economy might react to a change in interest rates or a type of failure or accident occurred in the built environment.  Models are updated with new data as required.  After Merriam-Webster dictionary, January, 2018)


  1. Getting hard evidence from soft data.  Posted January 10, 2018
  2. Cybanski, Major Adam R., Gyro Flight and Safety Analysis, Ottawa, 2017 http://www.gyrosafety.com
  3. Smith, Dr. Stuart, C. R. Tyner and Associates, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia  crtynerassociate@eastlink.ca

How do you get hard evidence from soft data?

How do you get evidence about the speed of a car from cracks in the pavement or trees at the corner?  How do you get reliable, quantitative evidence from the qualitative data on a mobile phone?  Evidence that will stand up in court?

This is being done now by a new forensic investigation method.  It requires knowing what to look for in the phone’s video, some measurements with a carpenter’s tape, Google earth, a little junior high math and lots of software.

It’s called video velocity analysis, a scary title but remember: Carpenter’s tapes, junior high math and modern technology make it happen.

Video of aircraft accidents taken by witnesses has been analysed since 2008.  The crash of TransAsia flight 235 on February 4, 2015 in the Keelung River shortly after takeoff from the Taipei Songshan Airport was caught on three separate witness cameras, and was subsequently analysed.  Video of traffic accidents is now being done the same way.

Reliable forensic evidence

The qualitative data on traffic cameras and car dashboard cameras is also being used, as well as mobile phones to learn the speed of a car at the time of an accident.  In fact, it was the cross checking of an assessment of car speed from three different sources of soft data - mobile phone, traffic camera and dash camera - in field trials with a car with a speedometer and GPS, that has demonstrated the accuracy of this new method.

How accurate is an assessment of car speed using these types of simple cameras?  Depending on the circumstances, within about 2 km/hour – pretty hard evidence in a court case.

Google Earth sometimes figures in this type of assessment as well.  How accurate is the quantitative data from the eye in the sky, kilometres high?  How about within a few centimetres on the ground in urban areas.

Evidence based on junior high math 

The basic principle is simple enough.  Measure the distance between two points on the ground seen in mobile phone video, note the time on the video for the car to travel this distance, divide one by the other – junior high math – and you’ve got your car speed.  Photogrammetry, the science of making reliable measurements using photographs, is sometimes used in this work but the principle is simple.

What does the analyst look for in the mobile phone video, traffic camera or dash camera?  Basically, anything on or near the ground that can give distance that can be correlated with time which is also taken off the camera.  Things like the distance between construction cracks in the pavement, dashes on road centre lines and lane markings. The analyst is also interested in anything that can be seen on Google Earth.

Car speed in accidents has been measured other ways for years and continues to be.  Using mobile phones is new, can be more accurate and provides an opportunity for the cross checking essential to good engineering and applied science.  I had the cross checking of data drilled into me by Major James A. H. Church when I studied land surveying at the College of Geographic Sciences. (Ref. 1)

Explained in Moncton, NB in 2017

This all came out in a lecture I took last fall in Moncton by Major Adam R. Cybanski, Gyro Flight and Safety Analysis, Ottawa, on a new technique for learning car speed in an accident. (Ref. 2)

Major Cybanski has been instrumental in developing the technique using the simple, inexpensive mobile cameras that are everywhere today.  He specializes in video analysis and accident reconstruction for aircraft and auto accidents.  Adam flew all manner of aircraft in the air force over the years, slowly moved into the investigation of the cause of aircraft accidents and more recently into auto accidents.

And used in court cases

He believes he is one of a few in the world using this analytical technique.  In 2016 he had one case, but this grew to 14 cases from different accident sites in the world in 2017.  Video speed analysis has been used in several court cases and as of March, 2017 has not been contested.

An analysis took him many months initially when he was developing the technique using witness video.  It is something he can now do in a few days, depending on the location of the accident and the features visible in the video.  Time is spent cross checking an analysis; getting the car’s speed from more than one camera.

Vehicle speed is just one element in accident reconstruction but an important one.  Adam gets camera data sent to him from the principle investigator wherever he or she is in the world, analyses the data and sends the auto speed back to the investigator.  He doesn’t need to visit the site in most cases.  His speeds have been validated using speed radar guns, GPS and Event Data Recorders – the “black boxs” installed in some cars to get information during accidents.

The lecture was organized by CATAIR, the Canadian Association of Technical Accident Investigators & Reconstructionists, Atlantic region.  Dr. Stuart Smith, secretary of CATAIR knew of Major Cybanski and his technique and suggested inviting him to Moncton to speak.  Stu reconstructs traffic accidents in his practice including analysing vehicle speed. (Ref. 3)

The take-away

What’s the take-away from this blog?  A new and accurate method is available to check vehicle speed in an accident as determined in more conventional ways.  The results are reliable and accepted as evidence in court.  And expertise is as near as your e-mail.  The speed of anything that moves can be analysed if caught on a mobile camera.


  1. Church, Major James A. H., founder and first principle of the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute, 1947, forerunner of the College of Geographic Sciences, Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia
  2. Cybanski, Major Adam R., Gyro Flight and Safety Analysis, Ottawa, 2017 http://www.gyrosafety.com  (Adam and I conferred about this method as it’s new to me too)
  3. Smith, Dr. Stuart, C. R. Tyner and Associates, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia   crtynerassociate@eastlink.ca




Optimism and confidence may impress the client but not Mother Nature (Ref. 1) Or, “How lucky do you feel…?” (Ref. 2)

Damaged foundations can result in civil litigation

I was contacted recently by a good friend in the U.K., Len Threadgold.  Len wanted to know how geotechnical investigation services are procured here.  This kind of investigation determines the physical properties of the soils and rocks that support foundations.  Engineers use this data to design the foundations.

Such an investigation is needed at every site because the foundation soil and rock conditions vary from site to site and across a site.  I learned when I practised in the U.K. to “Expect the unexpected” when assessing foundation soil conditions.  A similar mantra goes into the field with every geotechnical engineer in Australia – “If in doubt go deeper” – to stronger soils.  I had that drilled into me down there too.

Len is chairman and chief engineer of Geotechnics Ltd., a geotechnical and environmental engineering firm with offices in several cities in the U.K.  He was recently awarded the John Mitchell gold medal by The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) for “Excellence in geotechnical practice”.  Len will give a talk in London at the ICE on January 24 on Re-thinking Site Investigation – Design, Practice and Procurement to commemorate the award.

How is all this relevant to forensic engineering investigation?  Because many, if not most foundation failures are due to inadequate investigation of the ground which supports all building and civil engineering construction.  Damaged foundations can result in civil litigation.

Why are the investigations inadequate?  There are different reasons including foundation soil investigation services that are too often procured on the basis of low price in Canada and the U.K.

The barest minimum investigation is (too) confidently recommended in the interest of keeping costs down.  This can lead to foundation failure and major cost overruns – there’s no money in the quote for chasing the evidence across a site if unexpected conditions are found.  Cost and bottom line trump quality.

Often enough no investigation is carried out and hope rather than engineering analysis prevails.

Some studies in the U.K. indicated that project cost overruns due to unexpected ground conditions amounted to about 17.5% of project cost for highways (Ref. 3) while the cost of geotechnical investigation was on average 0.21% of project cost.  Cost overruns were 83.3 times as much as investigation costs!  If the difference between quoted prices for site investigation was 10% then this ratio becomes 833!! (Ref. 4) – not a sensible cost-benefit ratio.

So decisions on who to retain for a geotechnical investigation are based on trivial amounts of money, amounts much less than the cost of the reception desk in some offices and probably the cost of the opening ceremony. (Ref. 4)

I can’t help but think a similar situation exists here in Canada.

(Nor can I resist noting that some people shop around for expert forensic services on the basis of low price, and similar problems with inadequate forensic investigation may well result)

Parents instill confidence in us but remember Mom is just below the ground surface ready to scold if we accept low quality to save a dollar.


  1. After, Professor, Sir A. W. Skempton, U.K., “Optimism and overconfidence may impress one’s clients but they have no influence on the great forces of nature”.  Address of the President. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering, 3, 1961, pp 39-42.
  2. Clint Eastwood in the “Dirty Harry” movies, 1971 to 1988
  3. Stuart Littlejohn, Inadequate Site Investigation, The Institution of Civil Engineers, U.K., 1991
  4. Personal communication with Len Threadgold, Geotechnics Ltd., U.K., 2017 (An initial chat with Len on his ICE award gave me the idea to blog on this topic of inadequate geotechnical investigation, foundation failure and civil litigation)





An expert for every civil litigation lawyer in SEAK’s Expert Witness Directory 2018

This Directory contains over 1,600 expert witnesses indexed by over 23,000 categories – or different areas of expertise!  Most are located in the U.S. but some are in Canada.  I thought to give you a sampling of the categories but picking something representative seems impossible.  You can check them out at www.seakexperts.com

The experts are listed alphabetically by state, province and name.  Their names are given, location, telephone number, often enough a website. area(s) of expertise, number of times deposed/testified in the last 4 years, education/qualifications and years in practice.

SEAK, Inc. is a U.S. based expert witness training company in business for at least 30 years.  Their literature indicates they have trained thousands of expert witnesses through seminars, conferences, on-site corporate training, and by working one-on-one with individual experts.  The training is hands-on and covers areas such as report writing, depositions, direct examinations, cross examinations and ethics.

I attended one of their conferences and a workshop another year.  They are good and well organized.  I also have several of their books including both on expert report writing which are excellent.

It’s interesting, that while a number of their books are on testifying and cross examination, they list training in report writing first.  As adversarial as the U.S. seems, the great majority of disputes are settled out of court, and I’m sure this due in no small measure to good expert report writing..

You might take a look at their website.  While most of the civil litigation in the Atlantic provinces doesn’t need highly specialized experts from away, it’s nice to know the resource is there.  I could have used an expert in the design and manufacture of a power tool recently – and the expertise is listed in the SEAK directory – but my preliminary work saw the direction the investigation was going and that was enough.

C’mon, ‘fess up if you haven’t worked with experts before

It’s good for the judicial process and the injured party if you let us know if you’ve worked with experts in the past.  We catch on soon enough.  Get it out in the open at the start.  It’s also good for managing the cost of civil litigation.

Simply say, “I haven’t needed an expert before but do on this case”.  We all got to learn so it’s okay.

We can help you understand what’s involved in forensic investigation, what we need to do to be Rule 55 compliant (Nova Scotia) and how to manage costs.  Help you understand the investigative process that we must adhere to – our profession’s guidelines – in the same way experts are expected to have some understanding of the judicial process.

I’ve been blogging to that end for 5.5 years – to help you understand – and it’s paying off if reader feedback is any indication.  Still, some of you are a hard sell and cases go south for want of understanding.

I chide you about this because it’s important to get it out on the table.  I can help bring you along in this new relationship as you would me in understanding the civil litigation process.

I thought to suggest this after reflecting on some embarrassing exchanges over the years – another just recently – and not just with younger counsel.  One senior partner in a firm didn’t know that expert’s reports are sent via email today.  You could hear his silence over the phone.  Another estimated the total cost of a forensic engineering investigation at less than the invoiced cost of preliminary work.  Still another didn’t know that experts invoice on completion of individual stages in a forensic investigation, not for several stages in advance.

Don’t wing it.  Get it out there if you are relatively new to this.  You will learn how to work with an expert and control the cost of your case better.



Simple iPhone video taping an accident revises initial thoughts on cause

I was retained to investigate the cause of an accident involving the plaintiff using one of his tools.  People have been killed using this type of tool, it’s that dangerous.  The plaintiff believed there was a defect in the tool.  Graphic photographs of his injuries would certainly lead you to believe that - an initial hypothesis.

I was asked to peer review a report by another engineer and to examine the tool for wear sufficient to cause the accident.

The other engineer reported test-using the tool but, as evident in his report, not during a re-enactment of the accident.  He found a few things wrong with the tool but nothing to suggest it was defective.

I was surprised that the engineer did not re-enact the accident considering his stated years of experience investigating accidents.

I reviewed the report, researched howhis  the tool operated and examined the exterior.

I video taped the plaintiff re-enacting the accident and recorded his explanation of how he was injured.  I had him do this three times just to be sure and video taped his demonstration from different angles.

Evidence from the video and the interview was quite revealing as to cause but questions arose when this evidence was considered in light of evidence from the graphic pictures of the plaintiff’s injuries.

I retained a tool repairman to dismantle the tool and visually examine the interior surfaces for wear and defects.  He found nothing.

At this point in my investigation:

  • The nature of the injuries depicted in the pictures suggested one cause
  • The re-enactment suggested a different cause
  • The tool operated properly according to the repairman, supporting the different cause

The tie-breaker – justifying modifying the initial hypothesis on cause - were comments by the plaintiff during his interview on how he was using the tool coupled with how the tool operated.  Turns out he was using the tool in the most dangerous way, but one of several ways it could be used.  Also turns out that the material he said he was using didn’t exist as he described, except as a special order.  A similar, readily available material suited to the job he was doing could explain the contradiction raised by the graphic pictures.

To summarize the tie-breaking bullets:

  • The plaintiff said that he was using the tool in the most dangerous way, supporting the different cause noted above
  • The material he probably was using could explain a contradiction in the graphic injury pictures, also supporting the different cause

Based on the evidence, I modified my initial hypothesis that a defect caused the accident to believing that the plaintiff caused the accident by his actions when using the tool in the most dangerous way.


A spoiler?  As noted above, the plaintiff reported using the tool in the most dangerous way.  But, on being retained, I was given the tool rigged to be used in one of the safest ways.  This might have spoiled my modified hypothesis, but didn’t - the tool had passed through at least four sets of hands by the time I got it.

My client decided against further forensic investigation.


Design, manufacture/construction and maintenance/repair are three main stages in development and use of an item in the built environment, like a tool.  My investigation covered maintenance/repair when assessing if the tool in this incident was defective.

Retaining experts in design and manufacture to examine the tool would be a stage in a forensic investigation like this.  However, taking this step would not be justified considering the strength of the modified hypothesis and the cost of experts in design and manufacture.

My investigation several years after the incident cost money.  It would have cost less, as would the civil litigation in general, if I could have interviewed the plaintiff several days after the incident, or after my client took the case, and video taped him re-enacting the accident.  I’m certain the evidence from such simple tasks would have cast the merit of the case and the worth of the file in a quite different light.

Case take-aways

My take-away from this case is to get my iPhone out of my back pocket and video tape a re-enactment of an accident ASAP and have the victim describe it.  It might be rough – iPhone forensic video - but this quick and dirty stuff can pay dividends in a forensic engineering investigation.

My client’s take-away? Possibly an old saw – retain an expert early preferably during the merit assessment stage or a few days afterwards and save money on civil litigation.





Sinkholes: A litigious matter?

Sinkholes, like the one that undermined the house in Falmouth, Nova Scotia last week, are a serious issue for subdivision and lot developers.  As reported in the newspapers, the risk of sinkholes forming in an area can be known from published maps. (Refs 1, 2)  And the cavities in the ground associated with sinkholes can be found – before construction.

Sinkholes start their life as roofed-over cavities at some depth in the limestone, gypsum and salt deposits beneath an area.  The cavities get bigger and the roof gets thinner as rock like this dissolves in the ground water.  In a sense, the cavities “migrate” to the ground surface and eventually break through as sinkholes.  The fairly precise size, location and depth of cavities can be determined beforehand.

The technology for locating cavities in rock is well developed and has been around a long time.  It’s called ground penetrating radar, GPR for short, and it’s well known to experienced geotechnical engineers.  I used GPR years ago to locate cavities beneath an airport runway on South Andros Island in the Bahamas.  The same technique is used for locating unmarked graves.

It sounds technical but all it involves is sending radio waves into the ground and analysing what is reflected back.  There’s nothing too exciting in the data that comes from uniform soil or intact rock.  But lots of excitement in the data from a cavity, a well-recognized anomaly to the GPR operator – and a potential sinkhole beneath a building. The remote sensing, non-intrusive technique is not unlike CAT scans and MRIs in medicine.

The type of potential sinkhole I was looking for at the airport is called a banana hole. So named because banana plants grow in the sinkholes once the cavities break through the surface.  A banana hole/sinkhole can be seen in the runway by an inbound pilot but not the roofed-over cavity just before it breaks through the surface.

Geo engineers investigate the adequacy of the foundation soil and rock conditions beneath a site where someone wants to build something – like a house, for example, or a bridge, dam, or airport runway.  The conditions would not be adequate if there was a cavity beneath the building site.

GPR would not normally be used on a building site in the Atlantic provinces, nor in Canada for that matter.  But it certainly should if deposits of limestone, gypsum and salt are noted when the engineer checks the published geology of the site – an important and standard task in a geo investigation.  These types of rock with their inherent risk are not so common but they do exist as noted in the news report on the Falmouth sinkhole.

If there’s a risk and the technology is available to quantify it, and it’s not used, then it seems to me it’s a potentially litigious matter.


  1. Falmouth: Sinkhole wrecks family’s house, pg. 1, The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, Tuesday, September 5, 2017
  2. Geological conditions: Sinkholes not unusual in N.S.: Scientists, pg. 1, The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Bundle of Blogs: How to manage the cost of civil litigation involving experts

The following blogs – and good reference material in some - will help you manage the cost of civil litigation involving experts.  Careful management is necessary because most cases are small or medium sized not big - ”less affluent, not affluent” to reflect comment by The Advocates Society, Ontario. (Ref. 1)  Yet lawyers must still prepare before going to trial (Ref. 2) and experts must investigate before giving an opinion - regardless the size of the case.  Proper preparation and investigation can be expensive.

These blogs describe things you can do to keep tabs on costs.  Some ideas echo the principles followed in the well-developed field of project management.  Several suggestions, like the following, stood out as I reviewed my postings of the past five years:

  • Retain an expert early
  • Retain one according to your needs – by one count, 10 different ways
  • Confer with s/he often
  • Work together to identify the key technical issues that must be investigated

There are a number of helpful suggestions in the following list in addition to the bulleted ones above.  The chronological list also gives some idea of how my insight has developed over the years.

The list of blogs gives the title in bold and the date I posted it so it’ll be easy to locate on this site, the one you’re on - www.ericjorden.com/blog   I’ve reviewed each recently and added a comment on some of the ways each posting can help you - read my comments if nothing else:  There’s something for everyone in the following list.

  1. “Technical” visual site assessments: Valuable, low cost, forensic method.  Posted September 4, 2012 … A good read on the cost effectiveness of a simple visual assessment by an expert of the scene of a failure or accident.  Have this done before detailed investigation is begun - ideally when you assess the merit of the case and the worth of the file.  It’ll save money.  The blog includes examples from my practice, some of which show the value of this inexpensive method before an advocate actually decides to take a case.  I know of one case that such an assessment would have saved the luckless client many 1,000s of dollars (I was retained late in the case to peer review the forensic investigation).
  2. Steps in the forensic engineering investigative process with an Appendix on costs.  Posted July 15, 2013 … A detailed outline of the tasks in forensic work with brief comment on the difficulty estimating cost taken from a previous blog.  A must-read for non-technical people who must confer with experts.
  3. Difficulty estimating the cost of forensic engineering investigation.  Posted July 23, 2013 … Another must-read.  Examples taken from my files illustrate the difficulty.
  4. (Fairly easy) Estimating the investigative cost of a catastrophic engineering failure.  Posted August 13, 2013 … The pictures of this failure are amazing!  Also my concluding remark considering the magnitude of the failure shown in the pictures: “So, estimating the cost of investigating the cause of a catastrophic failure is not always difficult.  And, if you don’t mind, estimating the cost of investigating a simple failure is not always easy.” 
  5. Managing the cost of civil litigation.  Posted September 19, 2013 … Outlines a detailed, stepped process for managing costs.  Based on principles from the well-developed field of project management.  The process is characterized by frequent updates on cost-to-date and estimated cost-to-complete, for both legal and expert involvement in a case.
  6. How to manage the cost of civil litigation.  Posted October 4, 2013 … A good read with lots of ideas.  An update of a previous blog that expanded the section, “Why must cost be managed?”  Contains a list of helpful references.
  7. Reducing the cost of forensic investigation – it’s being done now by default not by plan.  Posted September 14, 2014.  You may see your actions reflected in this blog.  An insightful read.
  8. Why the difficulty estimating the cost of forensic engineering investigation?  Posted September 1, 2013 … A must read.  A good, detailed review of what engineering experts are up against when attempting to estimate the cost of the different tasks in a forensic engineering investigation.
  9. “If you measure it you can manage it” – and do thorough forensic engineering and cost effective civil litigation.  Posted June 18, 2015 … A real good, short read and helpful in cost management.
  10. “Expensive” experts are not so expensive compared to the cost of key technical issues going undetected.  Posted December 8, 2015 … Contains good advice from noted and respected authorities in the legal profession.  Also lessons learned from a few cases I’m familiar with.
  11. Peer review costs can be controlled.  Posted January 22, 2016 … A good read on managing the cost of civil litigation costs by how you retain an expert.  See at least 10 ways if you count retaining an expert at the case merit-assessment stage or as a testifying expert.
  12. Cost control in civil litigation.  Posted September 8, 2016 … Some blunt comment on managing costs in a suggestion to APTLA (the Atlantic Provinces Trial Lawyers’ Association) to hold a conference or include a session on managing the costs of civil litigation involving experts)
  13. Keynote speaker on cost control in civil litigation.  Posted September 22, 2016 … A follow up suggestion to APTLA on how to organize a conference on cost management of civil litigation involving experts that would include keynote speakers from both the legal and expert communities.
  14. Managing the cost of civil litigation when experts are involved.  Posted March 19, 2017 … Explains a low cost method of doing this - basically, counsel and expert meeting very early in the case and talking about the technical issues.  If possible, investigating one or two technical issues certainly results in less expensive civil litigation than investigating several.  Examples from my files of cases that went well, and one case – not so much.
  15. Conference call on a “drone flight” reduces the cost of civil litigation.  Posted May 18, 2017. (Also see a blog posted March 31, 2017) … I’m getting a lot of cost effective evidence with unusual investigative techniques.  For example, with aerial video and photography from a low flying drone.  Also learning the source of water at a slip and fall accident site by taking a cold shower at the site.  And measuring the skid resistance of a floor with a piece of pig’s belly.  Advocates and experts must be receptive to non-textbook tricks in the interest of managing the cost of civil litigation.
  16. “A rose by any other name…”; Primers for lawyers.  Posted December 19. 2016 … An insightful blog inspired by a lawyer’s comment at an APTLA conference last November. (Ref. 2)  He was right on the money.  A lawyer must prepare before going into court and an expert must investigate before giving an opinion – and this can be expensive.  A good blog on a client’s need to know.
  17. An expert’s fees and forensic engineering.  Posted July 5, 2016 … An indication of the average hourly billing rates for professional engineers in the Atlantic provinces for different levels of experience and responsibility.  Rates not too much different than lawyer’s fees.  Knowing these helps in managing the cost of civil litigation.


  1. The Advocates Society, Toronto, Ontario, Principles governing advocates communicating with testifying experts, June, 2014.  Posted June 11, 2015
  2. Pizzo, Ron, Pink Larkin, and his comment “…lot of preparation beforehand – a lawyer just doesn’t walk into court”.  APTLA conference, It’s all wrongful: Death, Dismissal, Conviction & More, Halifax, November 4, 2016



Drone video as a forensic technique is joined by drone photography as an art form

I enjoyed learning recently about the annual international drone photography contest.  The contest was mentioned in the papers and, of course, I learned more by Googling.  I liked what I read and saw.

The contest recognizes that drone photography is more than fun indulged in by hobbyists with $300 drones and more than a surveillance technique used by the RCMP with $30,000 gear.  It’s an art form, and on the list with its use as a valuable forensic engineering technique using a $10,000 drone fitted with a camera.

The winning and runner-up photographs in the contest are impressive - you must go online and see if there is an artistic bent to your nature at all.  Impressed is the way I felt too when I first saw drone video of one of my forensic sites.

The contest photographs are submitted in four categories: Nature, People, Urban and Creativity by drone photographers from everywhere in the world.  Profiles of the professional and amateur photographers are included on the contest site.

The photographs are judged by a panel of experts that include representatives from National Geographic in France and the US, and from Kodak.  Both companies are two of several high profile sponsors of the annual competition.  This year, 2017, is the fourth year the contest has been held.

Such quality in photography and high profile in contest sponsorship is telling about the future of this photographic technique.  It echoes the increasing success I’m having in my forensic investigations getting evidence with a drone and presenting it to my earthbound clients.


  1. Some of the content in this blog has been taken from the drone contest website and also a conversation with Robert G. Guertin, Millenium Film & Video Productions, Dartmouth, NS, Canada.