Have you ever thought about working as a forensic engineer and serving as an expert witness? Forensic engineering can be a rewarding and lucrative career. Many forensic engineers work for themselves. They can set their own hours, with the notable exception that a forensic engineer working as an expert witness must adhere to the court’s schedule. And many experienced forensic engineers have billing rates in the hundreds of dollars per hour.
Forensic engineering involves the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury, damage to property or economic loss. Generally, the purpose of a forensic engineering investigation is to locate the 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.
Unfortunately, systems sometimes fail. Accidents sometimes happen. And lawsuits are filed. In some cases, the legal counsel may call upon a forensic engineer to review and provide expert testimony. Forensic engineers apply engineering principles to the investigation of performance problems or other failures. Forensic experts exist across all domains of engineering from mechanical, civil, metallurgical, electoral, digital, structural and chemical. These experts can assist as a technical or consulting expert in legal matters ranging from product liability, construction defect, personal injury, fire investigation, workplace safety and even subrogation or third-party tampering.
In the case of a disaster or a product failure, a forensic engineer might investigate and testify as an expert witness and provide their opinions on the causes of incidents and how to prevent future occurrences. In short, Forensic engineers are the detectives of the engineering world: they collect data, visit the accident site, investigate the components of the failure and provide detailed explanations during court cases.
But, do you have what it takes to be a forensic engineer?
As recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Forensic Practices Committee, the guideline for the engineering expert is “any individual whose knowledge, skill, training, professional experience, absence of bias, and peer recognition indicate superior knowledge about a particular field of endeavor such that the foundation exists to provide factual and authoritative conclusions and opinions.”
It’s important to note that there is no specific list of qualifications to be an expert witness in a court case. The judge decides whether an expert witness is qualified to testify. A qualified expert needs to be able to present reliable and credible testimony in order to help the jury better understand the facts at issue. But before the expert delves into the substance of their testimony, the first roadblock must be passed—voir dire. The voir dire process refers to testimony that establishes an expert’s qualifications.
The voir dire process varies throughout jurisdictions, but generally occurs during the trial itself. At the beginning of the expert’s direct examination, counsel questions the expert on his educational background, work experience, training, and any other factor that bolsters the credibility of the witness. After the preliminary inquiry is completed, opposing counsel then has the opportunity to ask the witness its own questions.
Although the judge determines whether an expert is qualified to testify, the voir dire questioning may also persuade a jury of the expert’s credibility well before the testimony commences. Therefore, the qualifications procedure can make just as strong an impression on a jury as the central testimony.
Some of the qualifications that can help bolster your credibility as an expert witness are:
- Undergraduate Degree in Engineering from an ABET accredited university
- Technical Competence in the subject area – defined by the engineer’s own professional work in studies, design, research, teaching or writing
- Graduate degrees in the subject area
- Professional License, obtained by examination, to practice in the subject area
- Full time practice in the relevant field of expertise
- Authorship of peer-reviewed publications on the subject
- Authorship of textbooks on the subject
- Active involvement with professional organizations that serve to advance the relevant technical subject
- Extensive similar experience on other projects involving the same subject
- Awards or peer recognition for accomplishments in subject area
You don’t need to have all the qualifications listed above to be an expert witness. But, obviously, the more the better. And you must also have excellent communication skills – both oral and written. While your explanation might include complex processes, you must be able to explain your findings to a group of individuals who likely do not hold an engineering degree. And forensic engineering involves a lot of writing. If you don’t like writing reports, then forensic engineering is probably not for you!
Forensic engineers typically work as independent entities. They may act as a consultant to a prosecution or defense team and to testify in court. They may also be hired by law enforcement to assist in an investigation. There are also firms that hire forensic engineers who act as a middleman to help legal or law enforcement agencies find the most suitable engineer to fit their needs.
It’s been said “To make it in the forensic engineering business, you have to know a lot about something and a ¬little about nearly everything else.” If you are willing to trade your steady paycheck and corporate ¬environment for the often solitary and occasionally adrenaline-inducing position of an expert witness, you’ll find that it can be a very gratifying and interesting career.
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