Canadian Forensic Engineering in a Downward Spiral

roarengineering Arbitration & Litigation, Articles

The field of forensic engineering is becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated, and it provides science based challenges that relate engineering to the real world failures.

Yet, in the past 3 to 6 years, I have noticed a steady downward spiral of Canadian forensic engineering that is mainly attributable to non-technical, unqualified forensic investigators. Many unqualified forensic investigators do not have the education or experience required to solve highly complex scientific issues. As a result, they use varying methods to ‘cover-over’ their ineptitude, including,

1. Governmental roadblocks. Authorities having jurisdiction allude to statues in order to complete their own investigations unimpeded. They typically exclude all interested parties from the site until the conclusion of their investigation. The travesty is that they destroy and alter physical evidence such that it has no evidentiary value, contrary to spoliation of evidence standards and established forensic engineering practice.

2. Window investigations. This refers to an investigator that sits in his/her car and completes an investigation looking through the car window. I have witnessed many investigations being completed with little site scrutiny or documentation (cheap and dirty). When a Statement of Claim is issued, there is very little evidence remaining (if any) and complex scientific issues have not been reconciled.

3. Undetermined classification. State that the cause is ‘undetermined’ and move on to the next one. No muss, no fuss … move on to the next file. The client is happy with the bill and the investigator doesn’t have to get dirty. He/she might even get home early.

How did we get here and what needs to change?

The majority of the blame can be placed on the large corporations that demand cheaper and quicker forensic investigations. They save money on expenses, but lose money in recovery (subrogation). Seasoned claims executives realize that recovery made through subrogation goes directly to their ‘bottom line’ but their experience and expertise is often ‘trumped’ by the accountants. They pay for loses that they should not be paying for and indirectly allow negligence (ie. poor workmanship and unsafe product design) to continue unchecked. Some of the blame has also been caused by Canadian spoliation law (case law). US investigations’ are driven by deep seated concerns for spoliation … spoil the evidence and you will pay; dearly. The US is slowing ridding itself of non-technical, unqualified forensic investigators because complex and sophisticated scientific examinations require engineering expertise. I have noticed a substantive change in the thoroughness of forensic investigations lead by US forensic engineers and it is impressive.

In order to change this downward spiral, practicing forensic engineers need to assert the proper methods that must be utilized during forensic investigations. The Professional Engineering Associations also have to step in and force licensed Professional Engineers to comply with good engineering practice even if the engineer is working for a governmental organization. They also have to prosecute non-engineers that cross the line into engineering. Lastly, and most importantly, the courts have the biggest role in ensuring that evidence is not spoiled, so that all interested parties get the same evidentiary value from all the physical evidence remaining at the scene.

Authored by Vincent Rochon, P.Eng

Vincent has over 29 years of experience in fire protection, forensic and electrical engineering. He has testified as an expert witness for over 100 formal judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings and investigated/peer reviewed several thousand fires and explosions. He is currently the Co-CEO of Roar Engineering Incorporated.

See Vincent’s Profile here.