8 steps to a successful forensic investigation

June 6, 2023

A destroyed building.
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Forensic engineering involves investigating failures or performance problems in order to determine their cause. Experts in this field apply engineering concepts and scientific principles to analyze properties, systems or structures that are not functioning as intended. They collect forensic evidence to gain insight into the circumstances surrounding the incident and, if the case leads to a legal dispute, present their findings as evidence in court to assist with the settlement. Failures can range from catastrophic events like a building or bridge collapse to instances where facilities or components do not perform as intended by the designer, owner or constructor. Forensic experts serving the insurance industry must follow a reliable methodology to uncover the cause of a claim.

The scientific method

Forensic engineers employ rigorous methods and procedures to solve problems and conduct investigations, with the scientific method being the foundational approach. This method — a well-known empirical body of techniques — has played a significant role in the development of science for centuries. It involves seven key steps that forensic experts adhere to closely. We have outlined an additional eighth step that is worth mentioning to clients.

Step one: recognize the need (observe)

After a property or casualty event occurs, the first step is to identify the problem. Forensic experts must determine the root cause and origin of the incident and assign responsibility. Identifying the cause and responsible party helps prevent similar incidents from reoccurring in the future.

Step two: define the problem (question)

An action plan is developed to solve the problem. This plan outlines a strategic, step-by-step investigation aimed at addressing the issue.

Step three: collect data (research)

Forensic engineers conduct a preliminary visit or inspection of the site where the incident occurred and gather forensic evidence. It is crucial to collect all available data associated with the incident scene before analyzing or hypothesizing. Forensic professionals have a duty to gather all relevant facts without prematurely theorizing, ensuring the development of an unbiased hypothesis free from speculation.

Step four: analyze the data (hypothesize)

This step involves a thorough analysis of all collected data. Experts in relevant fields may be consulted to provide their specialized knowledge.

Step five: develop the hypothesis (experiment)

Based on the data analysis results, as well as the professionals’ expertise, education and training, forensic engineers develop potential hypotheses. Multiple hypotheses are commonly considered at this stage.

Step six: test the hypotheses (analyze)

Each hypothesis is tested against all known facts and evidence. This may involve physical testing to gather additional data that supports or refutes the hypotheses. Any hypothesis not supported by the evidence must be discarded. Hypothesis testing is a strict and repetitive process that concludes when all feasible hypotheses have been tested, and those disproven have been eliminated.

Step seven: select the hypothesis (conclude)

After evaluating, testing and rejecting multiple hypotheses, only one hypothesis will remain that cannot be ruled out. This final hypothesis identifies the root cause of the event.

Step eight: share findings with the client (communicate)

For client-facing forensic experts, an additional step is crucial. Forensic investigations and analyses involve complex findings and highly technical information that may be difficult for the average person to understand. However, clients have a common need: to comprehend the issue and gain their own perspectives on the incident to make informed decisions regarding coverage. The ability to communicate complex findings in plain language is vital. Forensic engineers act as translators, conveying complex information in a manner easily understood by insurance company professionals.

Characteristics of a typical case

A typical case usually originates in one of two ways. First, a forensic engineering firm is approached by a client who is interested in investigating a loss and determining its cause. Alternatively, a failure, such as a collapse, may be reported in the news or come to the attention of a forensic engineering firm. In such cases, the firm identifies the insurance company involved in the loss, approaches them, and engages with a client group of carriers who want to understand what happened and why.

The duration of a forensic investigation varies significantly. For instance, EFI Global handles more than 40,000 forensic engineering projects per year. Most of these projects involve a one-day site visit, one day of reporting and a total turnaround time of less than two weeks. More complex projects require further analysis and consultation, which can extend the investigation period to up to two years.

Each case includes at least two layers of quality analysis for low-exposure incidents: the main author and the expert peer reviewer. However, complex cases often require multidisciplinary expertise beyond internal resources. This may involve engaging specialty engineers, scientists or investigators. Forensic engineers rely on a global network of experts to consult whenever necessary. If a case involves a rollercoaster collapse, for example, the lead forensic engineer might seek assistance from a consultant specializing in rollercoasters to aid in the cause analysis.

The importance of open communication and ethics

Communication plays a crucial role throughout the entire process, not just during the eighth step outlined. To receive an assignment, not communicate for six months and return with findings would be a professional failure. Frequent updates, particularly in complex cases, are essential. The insurance company needs to understand the cause and the responsible party in case legal action arises.

The forensic engineering practice is guided by strict ethical standards rather than client needs alone. It is critical to eliminate bias in all forms. Therefore, forensic experts must maintain impartiality and have no actual, latent or potential conflicts of interest. They should have no personal or business relationships with any party involved and should not have an interest in or benefit from the outcome of the case. A forensic engineer’s findings and testimony can have significant and far-reaching consequences on the businesses, professional reputations and even the personal lives of the parties involved, particularly the one accused of causing the failure.

The investigative ethics employed, and the professional’s impartiality are subject to close scrutiny. Due to the importance of legal proceedings, experts providing testimony are held to the highest ethical standards. As stated by the U.S. National Society of Professional Engineers (NPSE), “Your responsibility is to be loyal to your client within the framework of ethical practice, which places truth above all other considerations.”

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