In September 1997, EC&M initiated monthly articles on electrical forensics, a highly specialized practice requiring both extensive familiarity with a technical field of expertise and considerable knowledge of legal procedures. The results of a forensic investigation, by definition, solely serve the legal dispute resolution process — as distinguished from the results of troubleshooting, that serve the repair or redesign process. The fascinating and lucrative nature of this specialty might tempt the uninitiated to accept a case at the first opportunity. This work is often done in a hostile environment, exposing even the best-intentioned “expert witness” to the possibility of litigation and high personal defense costs. One would be ill-advised to perform forensic consulting after reading a few magazine articles, as this profession requires much knowledge not readily available in print. Two of the articles in this series seem at odds with the professional and ethical practice of electrical forensics.
When writing about spilt (sic) water shorting a vertical bus duct, “Water Seepage Spells Disaster For Electrical System,” Feb. 1998 issue, Paul Pritzker details his 100-year-old engineering firm’s involvement in design or repair work on this project, implying there was a “forensic investigation” involved. Neutrality is a tenet of forensic engineering that restricts the investigating individual or organization from performing design or repair work for any of the parties involved in a forensic case, to avoid a conflict of interest and possible lawsuit. Though the lessons learned are similar to those from forensic investigations, this article makes no mention of involvement with the legal process. As such, this article is about troubleshooting—not forensics.
In the March 1998 issue, “Tunnel Vision Shows Silence Achieves Results,” Pritzker infers an expert witness may choose to withhold information at a trial. The forensic engineer, or other expert, is ethically bound to confidentiality until he or she is “declared as an expert” (a legal technicality) at which time he or she is required to answer fully and truthfully all questions from either party in the case, at disposition and trial. The forensic expert is not free to choose silence at trial, although that expert is not obliged to say anything more than is required to answer each question posed. The purpose for his or her involvement in a case is to render an objective technical opinion about the facts of the case. The decision to withhold information by silence is reserved for the party’s attorney by avoiding “declaring” that expert in the first place.
EC&M can perform a great service by using reports of how and why parties become involved in legal conflict to help its readers implement their design and performance endeavors in a manner that avoids lawsuits, insurance claims, and accidents as well as promote the safest use of technology.
Publishing forensic articles as those referenced above that contain incorrect or incomplete information, and an aura of “how to do it,” can cajole readers into attempting forensic investigations that could put them at risk of significant financial peril and unfairly biasing a legal proceeding.
Ralph Crawford, P.E.
Forensic Electrical Engineer,
Vice Chair, Ethics Committee,
Society of Forensic Engineers
One would expect a reader of a magazine to recognize the limitations placed on an author when he writes an article limited to a maximum of 1500 words. My articles are not intended to be a “how-to” guide to master the labyrinth of the forensic engineering services. They’re written to convey that there is a niche in the practice of consulting engineering distinct from those of the traditional design professional. I agree forensic services are complex, and “there are times when the forensic engineer may well be the most qualified and appropriate entity to perform redesign or repair.”
The important issue that Crawford missed in his critique is that of full disclosure. In all instances where we provide even a modicum of professional service beyond “traditional” forensic investigation, we make certain all parties are aware of all factors that might impact the decision-making process.
Crawford’s assertion that forensic practitioners support a policy of never accepting redesign or repair work in a forensic case has merit in theory but must leave room for evaluation on a case-by-case basis.
This writer has been disposed and testified (under oath and subject to cross examination) in excess of 150 times in the last quarter century. In all that time, I have never answered a question that was never asked. It is not incumbent upon a witness to just talk when he/she is on the stand. Instead, that witness is required to answer the question asked. It is not the forensic engineer who has the unilateral choice to remain silent at the trial. It is the role of the attorney for the respective parties to bring out in direct, cross, redirect, and rebuttal those questions they want addressed in open court. Agreeing that a forensic engineer be impartial doesn’t equate with the fact that clients should not pay us to lose their case. The issue in “Tunnel Vision Shows Silence Achieves Results” is that there are times when it is appropriate not to talk. When we are retained to represent a defendant, we recognize the plaintiff has the burden of proof. Not infrequently on complex litigation, there are multiple defendants. When allegations against a particular defendant have not been proven, it is not unusual for the attorney representing that party to move for summary judgement. Under that circumstance, the forensic engineer best serves his or her client by silence. As a condition precedent to that strategy, one must have done his “homework” to make sure there is not an area of vulnerability.
Paul E. Pritzker, P.E.
Sr. Forensic Consultant
Palo Alto, Calif.