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Forensic Engineering…What's it all about?

“I think if I weren’t so squeamish, I would have been some sort of forensic analyst. And I can’t do anything with a microscope because then I start thinking about the world of germs around us.”
~ Octavia Spencer

The term forensic has been made very popular through the many crime drama television shows which air on any night of the week. Unconsciously when hearing the term forensics the mind immediately goes to crime, blood and DNA samples. While this is one area of forensics, there is another, which many have referred to as a less talked about gem, known as forensic engineering.

What is Forensic Engineering?
The word forensic comes from the Latin adjective forensis, meaning "of or before the forum."
There are many explanations and definitions floating around about what forensic engineering is, Wikipedia provides this description, “Forensic engineering is the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury or damage to property. The consequences of failure are dealt with by the law of product liability. The field also deals with retracing processes and procedures leading to accidents in operation of vehicles or machinery. The subject is applied most commonly in civil law cases, although it may be of use in criminal law cases. Generally, the purpose of a forensic engineering investigation is to locate cause or causes of failure with a view to improve performance or life of a component, or to assist a court in determining the facts of an accident. It can also involve investigation of intellectual property claims, especially patents.”

What type of services do Forensic Engineers perform?
Forensic engineers perform a variety of services which include: consulting with attorneys, analyzing cases (including site visits), providing depositions, preparing expert reports as well as acting as an expert witness in front of an arbitration panel or in a court of law.

Forensic Engineering Process breakdown
Case analysis is a vital step and where the real work begins. From any documentation and depositions provided by your attorney you begin to reconstruct what happened in the case. During this process you are looking for any contradictions or facts presented. During this time a site visit can be beneficial to help better understand what occurred. During site visitation, it is important to take photographs. This is important to do if the site reflects the same condition as the time of the incident. Expert reports are requested by your attorney. An expert report is a document your professional opinion about the areas of concern in the case. Your report must be written at a level where members of the jury are able to comprehend it. Studies have shown the average reading level for adults in the U.S. is around tenth grade, that is the level of explanation your report should read.

Depositions are requested by the opposing attorney. During this process, the opposing attorney will establish or debunk your qualifications through a series of questions. Further questioning will reveal how you formed your opinions and the opposing attorney will then begin to look for opportunities to create holes/questions in your opinions. When you have submitted your expert report, the opposing attorney may request to depose you. After going through a long series of questions to establish your qualifications or lack thereof to provide opinions in the case he or she will ask you how you formed your opinions and will attempt to knock holes in your opinions. Always remember you are the expert, not the opposing attorney. Your attorney will step in if the opposing attorney becomes overly aggressive. Expert Witness' serve to educate the jury so they are able to make a decision with all presented facts in the case. The jury will be provided with a copy of your report which is why making sure it is understandable for the average adult reading level is important. Always be sure to have eye contact with the jury and speak clear and loud so your every word is heard.

How much does a Forensic Engineer make?
Pay ranges anywhere from $200-$610 an hour. Depending on the firm there may be varying rates depending on the work such as research, testimony and deposition. In a 2006 article in IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer entitled, “Forensic Engineering: On the Trail of Truth,” Marvin Specter, executive director of the National Association of Forensic Engineers, stated the work offers “compensation ‘in multiples of the pay’ an engineer might make working for someone else.” Ultimately it is up to you how much you charge.