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Forensic Engineering: Introduction and Types of Forensic Investigations

January 24, 2022

Forensic engineering has helped make the world a safer place. Understanding ‘what went wrong’ and what didn’t perform to expectations is at the backbone of what drives better design, reliable operation and safer structures. It ensures cause of loss is correctly assessed and equitable results achieved in insurance claims, court cases and investigations. 

Table of Contents

Part 1: Introduction to forensic engineering

    1. What is forensic engineering?
    2. When is forensic engineering needed?
    3. Who normally requires forensic engineering?
    4. Examples of forensic engineering
    5. How forensic investigation helps resolve disputes and makes the world safer

Part 2: Types of forensic accident investigations

    1. Types of forensic investigations a forensic engineering team carries out
    2. What kind of incidents do forensic engineers investigate?
    3. What does a forensic engineer do?
    4. What qualities do you need to be a forensic engineer?


Part 1: An introduction to forensic engineering

What is forensic engineering?

Forensic engineering is the investigation of property loss and injuries related to failure in materials, components, design and structures. These can be minor incidents, such as a crankshaft breaking, or catastrophic events, such as a bridge collapse.

The results of forensic engineering investigations are presented to manufacturers, builders, insurance companies and law firms. If the involved property damage, economic loss, personal injury or death, forensic evidence may be presented before the court of law, at arbitration and other forums, along with the testimony of the investigator.

Investigations are essential for legal decision-making, in the prosecution and defence of civil and criminal claims. Cases involving financial claims rely on forensic engineering for fact-finding.

When is forensic engineering needed?

The goal of a forensic investigation is to determine the cause of a failure. This means establishing a chain of causation that led to the failure and tracing out the steps that resulted in the accident. This information can be used to improve the performance and reliability of a component.

Often, the results of a forensic investigation are presented before the courts. Failures can give rise to liability due to the property damage, personal injury or loss of life that resulted from them. As such, forensic evidence is used in the claim, prosecution and defence of a contested breach of contract, violation of health and safety claims, product liability and tort claims. Even intellectual property claims, such as for patent infringement, can rely on forensic investigation to make their case.

Who normally requires forensic engineering for an accident or failure?

  • Product manufacturers
  • Builders and contractors
  • Insurance companies
  • Underwriters
  • Banks and financial institutions
  • Auditors
  • Lawyers and law firms
  • Government investigators
  • Project consultants

Examples of forensic engineering

One of the most common applications of forensic engineering is in decoding product liability. Claimants (plaintiffs) and defendants both rely on expert testimony to establish a chain of events and apportion fault.

A few different examples of forensic engineers being called to investigate an accident are:

  • A concert stage collapsing and crushing a person underneath before the show
  • An electric kettle experiencing an electrical failure and causing burns to the owner
  • A bridge collapsing under the weight of snow and ice despite being deemed safe

How forensic investigation helps resolve disputes and makes the world safer

Forensic investigation has been a part of the resolution process in civil and criminal trials, insurance claims, contractual disputes and more. Extensive and in-depth investigation helps to identify problems, and findings empower engineers and manufacturers/builders to avoid these mistakes in the future. Here are a few ways forensic engineering helps resolve disputes and make the world safer:

  • Expert testimony that helps the court understand technical issues
  • Definitive findings that enable claims adjusters and assessors determine compensation
  • Help make components and machine parts safer
  • Reduce failure rates in all types of applications
  • Improve procedures to reduce manufacturing/building imperfections
  • Identify best practices to reduce number of failures
  • Share technical information on failures and build knowledge base
  • Develop/improve guidelines on conducting failure investigations

Part 2: Types of forensic accident investigations

Forensic investigations / Loss investigations are rarely alike. Every investigation is unique and forensic engineers must ignore the inherent ‘assumption bias’ which can hamper an investigation.

Types of forensic investigations

Types of incidents

  • Contractor liability claims
  • Product liability claims
  • Arsons
  • Fraud
  • Bodily injury claims
  • Heavy equipment failures

What kind of incidents do forensic engineers investigate?

There is no exhaustive list of the types of incidents forensic engineers investigate. A forensics team may work with commercial and industrial clients, with government regulators and health and safety bodies to decipher the complex causes behind accidents.

  • Biomechanical and bodily injury
  • Fires and building codes
  • Structural and civil failures
  • Reconstructing collisions
  • Environmental disaster investigations
  • Electrical failures and fires
  • Geotechnical investigations
  • Product failures
  • Material failures
  • Transportation and trucking accidents

What does a forensic engineer do?

Forensic engineering is a multidisciplinary practice that includes evidence gathering, failure analysis, simulation, accelerated life testing and statistical analysis. A forensic engineer must possess considerable knowledge in their specific field of engineering.

The role of the engineer can be divided into three distinct phases detailed below: gathering evidence, investigation analysis and reporting to the client.

Gathering evidence

  • Researching the background of the incident
  • Organization onsite
  • Ensuring proper scene preservation
  • Assessment of hazards
  • Directing evidence gathering

Investigation analysis

  • Initial appraisal of incident
  • Understand terms of reference provided by client
  • Plan out investigation
  • Form investigation team
  • Determine extent of investigation based on terms of reference
  • Avoid bias and maintain objectivity

Reporting to the client

  • The nature and cause of failure
  • Expert testimony before the court or other forum

What qualities do you need to be a forensic engineer?

A common attribute for all forensic engineers is curiosity. All forensic engineers, regardless of discipline, must share a love of solving problems. There must be an urge to understand how things work and what led to the occurrence of the incident.

A forensic engineer is typically a qualified mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, environmental or materials engineer. Most have specialization(s) in fields such as chemical or structural, or in industries such as oil and gas or consumer appliances. This can come from working in the field or through the completion of advanced degrees. Of course, the greatest asset of any forensic engineer is experience.

Another essential attribute for any engineer is reporting. Being able to explain – simply and technically – your and your team’s findings is key to a successful investigation.