Role of the Forensic Engineer as Expert – 2014: Legal & Ethical Issues

Definition of an Expert Witness

According to the definition of an expert witness is as follows:

“An expert witness is a witness who has knowledge beyond that of the ordinary lay person enabling him/her to give testimony regarding an issue that requires expertise to understand.” USLEGAL goes on to explain, “Experts are allowed to give opinion testimony which a non-expert witness may be prohibited from testifying to. In court, the party offering the expert must lay a foundation for the expert’s testimony. Laying the foundation involves testifying about the expert’s credentials and experience that qualifies him/her as an expert. Sometimes the opposing party will stipulate (agree to) to the expert’s qualifications in the interests of judicial economy.”

Practitioner Seminar

Mike Drerup, P.E., a consulting building performance engineer delivered a great practitioner lecture on the topic to students in the AE 537 Building Failures class in architectural engineering at Penn State. His lecture is a must see if you ever get the chance to attend one. In addition to covering terminology such as “standard of care”, depositions, chain of custody on evidence, etc., Mr. Drerup discussed the role of the expert witness in three major categories.

  • Professional Practice
  • Business
  • Technical (Science & Engineering)

The lecture was all summed up and tied together through the use of several case study examples to illustrate the process and to demonstrate the scope of effort and scientific study required for many forensic investigations.

ASCE TCFE Guidelines

In terms of guidelines related to the practice of forensic engineering for buildings and infrastructure, the topic is well covered in the publication Guidelines for Forensic Engineering Practice (Guidelines) by the Forensic Engineering Practice Committee (FEPC), Technical Council on Forensic Engineering (TCFE) of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

The Guidelines are organized into five general topics of forensic engineering.

  1. Qualifications: addressing commonly accepted education and requirements for forensic engineers.
  2. Investigations: illustrating the typical aspects of physically carrying out a forensic investigation.
  3. Ethics: discussing guidelines for the ethical behaviors of the forensic engineers.
  4. Legal: providing a brief overview of the court system as it applied to the construction industry.
  5. Business: relating the non-technical management side of forensic engineering practices and the marketing of forensic engineering services within an acceptable ethical scheme is encouraged.

An excellent follow up article on this topic authored by Robert T. Ratay was published in Structures magazine and can be downloaded using the links below:

The Forensic Expert Consultant / Witness and the companion article Professional Practice of Forensic Structural Engineering both of which were published in Structure Magazine.

Michael J. Drerup, P.E. Building Performance Consultant
Mr. Drerup is a professional engineer with nearly 20 years of structural engineering and
building technology experience, with an emphasis on the performance, maintenance,
repair, and retrofit of existing buildings and structures. He has planned and directed
field and laboratory studies to evaluate the performance and durability of a variety of
building systems, components, and materials, including structural systems, facades,
and flooring. Mr. Drerup works closely with specialists in other disciplines to assemble
and manage teams tailored for larger and more complex assignments. He has also
investigated numerous damage claims resulting from a variety of natural and man-made
causes, including earthquakes, weather events, explosions, fire, impact, construction
activities, and defective design or construction. He has served as an expert witness in
numerous cases, and he has testified at deposition, trial, and mediation.
Mr. Drerup has served on the American Society of Civil Engineer’s (ASCE’s) Technical
Council on Forensic Engineering for 13 years and recently completed his term as
Council chair. During that time, he has led the development of continuing education
seminars for engineers and architects, chaired ASCE’s Fifth Congress on Forensic
Engineering in Washington, DC, and served on the steering committee for the Sixth
Congress in San Francisco. He has also represented ASCE internationally, including
two sponsored trips to forensic engineering conferences in India, and collaboration
with the Institution of Forensic Engineers in the United Kingdom. He has served as a
reviewer for ASCE’s Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities for more than
10 years and was guest editor for a special topic issue on non-destructive evaluation of
existing buildings and infrastructure. Mr. Drerup regularly publishes and presents on a
range of topics including technical issues, professional practice, and architectural and
engineering history



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One Response to “Role of the Forensic Engineer as Expert – 2014: Legal & Ethical Issues”

  1. JeremyS
    November 15, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

    For our previous class we had the privilege to learn the more legal aspect of forensic engineering from Mr. Michael Drerup who has extensive experience as an engineering witness. Before his lecture even took place Mr. Drerup clearly described what an engineer as an expert witness is. From my understanding of his explanation an engineering witness is someone who is hired for a legal reason to study a particular issue or aspect of a building and then present those findings in court. It was more than obvious that Mr. Drerup has had plenty of experience in the arts of explaining complex ideas and problems through words and images. The way he presented each topic was very clear and full of useful photos. I think this is a key ability for any engineer as we have to interpret and explain complex issues every day.

    One of the more interesting points that Mr. Drerup discussed was the ‘spheres of origin’ for any issue in a building. He stated that these issues can be broken into six spheres, Design, construction, materials (before completion) maintenance, extreme events and deterioration. While I am sure there are more causes than the previously stated I think that the most common are the 6 previously mentioned. It was also stated in the presentation that each of these spheres of origin can be prevented save for one; deterioration. I slightly disagree with this. While it may be the case for many buildings that deterioration is inevitable there are the rare exceptions of buildings that have been around for thousands of years. However these are so few in number that deterioration may as well be considered impossible to prevent.

    Another intriguing topic that was discussed in the lecture was the ethical idea of an engineer to advocate his client’s side in a trial. I can see this being a potential downfall for many engineers in court. It seems all too easy for a judge or an opposing lawyer to claim that the engineer as witness is only defending their client and not presenting the truthful facts. Mr. Drerup mentioned that engineers as witnesses can advocate for their client as long as they are presenting truthful facts that further their side of the case. My main question, which I regret not asking during the lecture, is what to do when the opposing lawyer asks for facts that would advocate their side of the case? Is it acceptable to say I do not wish to present this information or would that be considered unethical? If there was anything learned from the lecture given last class it is that a court room is a complicated place and an engineer as witness must express themselves very clearly.

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