Experienced attorneys usually have go-to sources for construction and engineering experts. However, cases in construction litigation can be curve-balls, where the expertise required is different from initial expectations or the issues are complex and need deep investigation. The latter usually calls for retaining an engineering expert to help your client’s case.
Whether you’re searching online for engineering expert witnesses for construction litigation or receiving recommendations from colleagues, there are a number of steps and things to keep an eye out for in finding the right one.
The Vital First Step – Understanding the Issues
When listening to the clients’ story on the claim, ask them for any technical facts of each issue. They will help guide you in finding the right engineering and construction expert(s). Every building and piece of infrastructure has unique elements which makes each case subsequently different. Some claims can be straightforward, others can get quite complex. Before picking up the phone or opening another browser tab to hunt for an expert, it’s a good idea to get answers the following questions:
- What type of construction is the structure(s)?
- What are the issues or failures, and do they have suspected causes?
- Are the issues or failures occurring in places where multiple disciplines and trades had their hand in their design and construction?
- Does the structure involve new systems or methodologies outside of what has been done in the past?
- What stands out uniquely about this claim?
To get solid detailed answers to these questions, one strategy experienced attorneys use is bringing in a construction consultant who can help with the initial technical investigations and claims management. These professionals don’t become designated, but their insight can make a drastic impact in early decisions to build a case, including helping you find the right forensic engineering expert.
Things to consider when looking for an Engineering Expert Witness
Understanding what the technical issues are will tell you which engineering disciplines you’ll need experts in. For example, if an issue is a structure or material failure, it will fall under the discipline of a forensic structural engineer or civil engineer.
Along with understanding which disciplines that involve the case, there are other things to evaluate whether an expert is the right fit.
By looking at an expert’s profile, you should get a good feel on whether they can perform as an all-purpose engineering expert witness or a specialist in a specific subfield. To illustrate, one structural engineer may specialize in reinforced masonry for steel & concrete while another specializes in wood-framed construction for tall wood structures.
One mistake an attorney can make during consideration is specifying expertise requirements too narrowly. Below is an example of one:
“Expert needs to be mechanical engineer who has experience designing ventilated curtain-wall components.”
By making that a strict requirement, finding an ME who has that experience and is available for expert work would be difficult. It would also rule out many solid experts who can opine on ventilated curtain-wall issues, such as structural engineers who design them or building envelope consultants who regularly inspect and test them.
Key thing to remember is everyone who has a Professional Engineer (P.E.) designation brings with them a solid foundation in math and engineering sciences. Also, depending on the issue, a construction trade expert could be a better fit than a forensic engineer.
Scope of the Assignment
With a solid understanding of the issues in the case, you should have some idea on the scope of the assignment. Whether you’re anticipating a brief analysis that can be done within a week to a major undertaking that spans years, it’s important to communicate that in the discussion with the expert.
Some engineering experts have full-time positions as principles in their firms while others operate primarily as consultants. Depending on the assignment size, they may not have the capacity to take it on without needing the help of other experts.
Qualifications and Experience
Most expert witnesses you’ll encounter in the construction and engineering worlds will be later in their career with usually 20 or more years of experience. Sometimes you will have younger experts that are qualified, however juries have an ageism bias. That doesn’t mean you should discount them, for example, the younger engineers may bring expertise in Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other advanced software which some older experts haven’t picked up this late in their career.
When reviewing their resume/CV, it’s smart to compare their work experience and expertise with their qualifications. The public understands academic qualifications like university degrees (Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate), but those usually don’t convey the experience in engineering and construction. Licenses, certifications and involvement in professional associations usually do a better job to convey a forensic engineer’s qualifications than a degree.
Judges consider the Professional Engineering license the benchmark for engineering experts. The P.E. license requires a level of education, years of work experience, and passing an extensive written exam. Licensed engineers in California also have to adhere to the state’s Business and Professions code as well as NSPE’s code of ethics.
There’s a plethora of certifications and professional associations in the construction and engineering fields. If you are unfamiliar with one, it’s useful to look them up and ask around to learn its role in the industry.
Forensic engineers can perform a lot of their analysis remotely, however there are cases which they may need to perform a forensic inspection or technical investigation on site. An expert that is local to the project location can keep travel expenses to a minimum.
Another benefit of a local expert is they know the local construction practices as well as local jurisdiction ordinances; those can bring some advantages over experts who aren’t from the region.
Unfortunately, not every county has a deep engineering talent pool like Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Sometimes searching outside the project area (or out-of-state) is what you have to do to find the right expert.
Testifying Experience and Methods
Experience in forensic engineering is distinctly different from being experienced in their respective field. Learning about the expert’s experience in writing technical reports, giving depositions and providing testimony in the courtroom is very important to figuring out how the case gets handled. If the expert doesn’t appear to have much testifying experience, it is wise to ask for references.
It's also useful to learn the methods and style the expert does their work. Like all professions, experts can come in many shapes, and forms. Some experts have a tendency to “get into the weeds” of technical issues when explaining their opinion, while others try to break it down in layman terms with allegories. When interviewing the expert, one thing to ask is how they report their findings – this will let you know whether they rigidly explain “just the facts” or help you contextualize them in a way to help the client.
Where to find a reputable forensic engineer in California
At Xpera Group, we’re proud of our status as West Coast’s premier team of construction experts. We number more than 50 experienced professionals in many fields of expertise in construction and engineering (civil, structural, mechanical, etc.) in both northern and southern California. Learn more about our construction forensics capabilities here. If you have an existing matter which you need an engineering expert witness, contact us today!