Forensics Engineering Demystified
By Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E.
Forensic Engineering Demystified was the title of the New York chapters September 25th dinner meeting at Connolly’s restaurant on West 45th Street in midtown Manhattan. The numerous attendees included practicing Professional Engineers, Attorneys of various specialties, and other interested practitioners. Attendees earned one PDH credit toward their required continuing education development as mandated several years ago by the N. Y. State Education Department. This meeting was co-sponsored by the Metropolitan section of the ASME. If included presentations by four leading experts in the various phases of Forensic Engineering, which may be defined as the application of the various engineering sciences to the investigation and diagnosing of accidents and system failures and then articulating the probable causes before a legal tribunal. Forensic Engineers also serve as consultants to the legal profession and expert witnesses in court, in arbitration proceedings, and in administrative adjudication.
The first speaker of the evening was Marvin M. Specter, P.E., L.S, and Executive Director of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers. Marvin M. Specter is also a former President of NSPE and Honorary member of ASCE. Mr. Specter briefly recounted the development of the Forensic Engineering Academy, of which he was on the founding members. He personally has spent 58 years in Forensic Engineering Activities starting with his investigations covering the 1955 viaduct collapses along the New Jersey Turnpike and similar failures on Route 287. He has frequently been asked to testify in court proceedings and has also been subjected to adversarial cross-examination when his conclusions and recommendations have been challenged. Interestingly, the idea to form a society for Forensic Engineers was first suggested by a Psychologist and new members were only recruited after they had obtained 30 years of practical experience after having been granted their Professional Engineering License. Actually, today P.E. certification is not essential for careers in Forensics. Examples are biomedical experts, specialized Attorneys, Architects and Mediation and Arbitration Consultants. Over the years the Forensics field has expanded beyond construction failures to include failure analysis of buildings and foundations, injuries from unsafe machinery, electrical accidents and breakdowns, as well as effects of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. The modern members of the Forensics Academy are independent experts who occupy a special position in the legal system. They have a unique responsibility to provide ethical, objective, impartial testimony in legal proceedings where unbiased expertise is essential. Credibility is the most valuable asset of Forensic Engineers and continuing education is as necessary in Forensics as it is in all professions. The academy has responded by scheduling updating seminars every six months at various locations throughout the country.
The second speaker was Michael C. Kravitz P.E., L.S. a certified Civil engineer in New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire who works as a designer and construction supervisor for the N.Y. State Department of Transportation and N.Y. City Transit Authority. He is an expert investigator and analyst in reconstructing automobile accidents, highway defects, traffic hazards as well as construction failurs. As part of his investigative technique, Mr. Kravitz has helped develop computerized simulations of these events and provide graphic illustrations of their impact and damaging results. Among those presented by Mr. Kravitz were:
- A street accident where a pedestrian was crushed between a truck and car.
- On the Long Island Expressway where a car crashes into a tree after trying to avoid a police car participating in a chase.
- An urban street event in which a car causes a major accident after traveling over an open manhole, the cover of which could not be found. (Analysis showed that the cover fell into the open manhole).
- A man feel three stories out of apartment house window. (Investigation shows that the man, after fighting with his wife, exits apartment via fire escape, slips, grabs onto adjacent window air conditioner, pulls same out from window and falls to ground).
- A New England Thruway event in which a police car, entering the thruway, crashes into a tractor-trailer truck in the adjacent lane. (Analysis shows police car to be at fault and the trucking company won the court case).
- An elderly woman trips on sidewalk adjacent to a Dunkin Donuts Restaurant and is severely injured. (Investigation shows that a truck had previously damaged the sidewalk and exposed pipes below the walking surface).
- A truck backing up strikes a woman pedestrian who is injured. (Computer analysis of event correlates speed of truck with extent of women’s injuries to determine liability).
- At an intersection, a truck, careening after a collision, crushes tow pedestrians against a parked car while the victims were attempting to cross the street.
The third speaker of the evening was Michael S. Zetlin, Esq., a founding partner of the prominent law firm of Zetlin & DeChiara, LLP. Among other affiliations, Mr. Zetlin serves as general counsel and board member for the N.Y. Building Congress. As an attorney, Mr. Zetlin has represented clients in cases involved with safety concerns, code interpretation, façade collapses, concrete slab failure, etc. In pursuing these cases he has sought out technical experts who provide special knowledge, a calm professional demeanor, an aura of integrity, and a skill at articulating his conclusions. These experts should also possess a degree of subtlety in testimony since most of the circumstances they are presented with are rarely black or white, but various shades of gray. Engineers are trained to distinguish between right and wrong but the mere existence of a trial means there is a certain ambiguity present in the facts of record. In view of this dilemma, some engineers have been known to compromise under cross-examination and this has damaged some reputations. These views resulted in the most controversial exchanges of the evening between the forensic engineers and Mr. Zetlin. The engineers strongly maintained that they can always determine right from wrong in these circumstances and are ethically obligated to disclose errors regardless of the consequences. Mr. Zetlin stated that lawyers have no such obligations since their primary obligation is to protect their clients. This obvious difference of opinion was not resolved before Mr. Zetlin yielded the floor.
The final speaker of the evening was Timothy B. Lynch, P.E. the Principal Engineer of the Forensic Engineering Unit from the N.Y. City Buildings Department. The functions of this department are to enforce the various codes and zoning regulations affecting building construction in N.Y. City, where a total of 950,000 buildings are under the Building Departments jurisdiction. The department has a staff of 1300 people in the five borough offices and is currently hiring experienced engineers as well as qualified retirees. The department conducts 400,000 inspections a year and cooperates with 29 trade organizations to promote quality-building construction in our city. The department’s personnel also cooperate with the city’s Police and Fire Departments, Office of Emergency Management, OSHA, the Department of Investigation and the various District Attorneys when investigating a serious incident such as a building collapse or a demolition site which is a hazard to public safety. Most building collapses result form contractors trying to clear a site before proper shoring and bracing is in place, a most dangerous condition. Most construction sites require major earthwork modifications. Last year the department received 1000 applications for such modifications and inspected more than 700 sites. 150 such sites were shut down temporarily and 75 sites required additional backfill to remedy hazardous conditions and code violations. Engineers and contractors are urged to fully comply with all codes and regulations relative to underpinning, shoring and bracing and to fully check all building sites adjacent to the one undergoing construction. Mr. Lynch impressed everyone with his evident zeal and determination to protect the public safety and to improve construction standards in New York City. He closed his presentation with the reminder that any and all construction fatalities will result in one or more investigations by the district attorney and possible indictment.
Yes, Forensic Engineering is a vital component in the engineering profession as it continually aspires to achieve its ethical obligations.