Forensic Engineers



The following are narrative synopses of a few of my cases. This is not intended to be a formal presentation of legal actions. No confidential or privileged information is revealed. They are simply my recollections, intended only to illustrate an expert’s typical involvement in judicial matters.

I was the chief investigator and expert witness on all of the forensic cases of Gaskell Associates, Ltd., and later those of the Gaskell Associates division of Thielsch Engineering until my retirement. However, it was my practice to meet on each case with my senior staff to “brainstorm” the case. This often opened up avenues of investigation that had not previously occurred to me. Gary Hebner was a licensed electrician and served as lead investigator on many of my cases. (I attribute much of my success to hiring others who are smarter than I am.)

Case Study – Power Line Proximity to Structure

An interesting case involved “Ozzie” the roofer. Part of my job was to read his “deposition,” his fact witness statement of what he observed. Ozzie was hired to put a new rubber roof on a tenement. Near the completion of the project, he was attaching the 10-foot metal edge strips. As he was nailing a strip to the edge, he saw another strip start to blow off the roof and reached out to grab it. In doing so, he extended it out into contact with a 25,000 volt distribution line. Current flowed through the metal edge strip, through Ozzie’s right hand, through his left hand that was still holding the other edge strip, down the aluminum siding on the building façade, and then damaged all the appliances in the first-floor pizza restaurant.

The attorney asked him how he felt. “I was a little tired, so I took the rest of the day off,” Ozzie told him. Some things cannot be explained; perhaps Ozzie has a guardian angel. Incidentally, Ozzie was not even a party to the lawsuit; the pizza guy was trying to collect for his appliances.

Case – Smartphone Fire

A home was severely damaged by fire allegedly caused when a smartphone was left unattended while charging. The fire marshal and the other fire investigators had identified the origin of the fire to be in the vicinity of the phone. We were hired for the defense by the attorney of the manufacturer of the phone charger. As usual, we read through a lengthy case file, did some research, examined the evidence and an exemplar, and visited the scene. We couldn’t find any defect, but we agreed with the information in the case file that the charger seemed to be the only item associated with the origin of the fire with enough energy to start the fire.

Then, somewhat by luck, we came across a news article about lithium-ion batteries catching on fire. We checked the specifications of the phone in question, and, sure enough, it had a lithium-ion battery. These batteries were becoming popular because of their high-density capacity (watt-hours/kilogram). A problem can occur if there is a failure of the thin separators that keep the elements of the battery apart. This can trigger what is known as “thermal runaway,” causing the battery to overheat and burst into flames. Two things that keep today’s lithium-ion batteries relatively safe are improvements in manufacturing techniques and the use of smarter monitoring systems. We also found an article about how these batteries can be damaged by using them in hot environments, causing rapid charging. Two of the depositions indicated that the phone was in front of the window on a carpet in direct sunlight.

Armed with this information, our attorney/client told us to stop all work on the case and to submit our final bill. The lessons here are keep abreast of the news related to your cases and find something else at which to point a finger.

Case – Standard of Care

My largest forensic case involved the Denver International Airport. This was one of the largest construction projects in the United States for three years in a row and employed more than 10,000 workmen simultaneously. (I was not involved with the famous “Baggage Handling System” problems that delayed the opening of the airport for almost a year.) Because of what seemed to be an inordinate number of errors and omissions by the main terminal architects and engineers, the city and county of Denver decided to sue. Architects and engineers are not expected to be perfect and are not required to compensate owners for their mistakes, if these professionals meet the standard of care—“that level or quality of service ordinarily provided by other normally competent practitioners of good standing in that field, contemporaneously providing similar services in the same locality and under the same circumstances.”

When my friends ask how I was selected to investigate the electrical issues, I tell them that they did a nationwide search and picked me. In fact, a mechanical engineer friend of mine met the litigation manager at a seminar and was asked to put together a New England team. I was told that they wanted to avoid anyone who might know the Denver architects and engineers.

I made six trips to Denver and reviewed files of 143 alleged electrical errors and omissions. I was deposed (oral questioning by the opposing attorney) for six hours and appeared on the witness stand for four hours. Unfortunately, there is no formula to apply regarding standard of care. I needed to evaluate the facts and circumstances and express my professional opinion.

The residents of Denver had endured the presence of rowdy construction workers for ten years and were anxious to get vengeance with a lawsuit. But by the time that the trial actually took place, they had all used the airport, enjoyed the wide concourses, and took pride in the many design awards that the airport received. Their verdict was “not guilty.” An unofficial poll later revealed that the jurors’ general feeling was “yes, they made a lot of mistakes, but it was a complicated and unique design and anyone would have made slipups.”

Case  – Conveyor Accident

One of my cases involved a man who injured his hand on a conveyer in a sub-zero walk-in ice cream freezer. I was a defense witness for the electrician who (may have) installed the electrical system for the conveyor. My investigation revealed that the “conveyor code” required that a safety pull cord be installed above the conveyer that, if pulled, would stop the conveyor. It was not installed. It was my opinion that the conveyor manufacturer was responsible for ensuring that this safety device was installed. A representative of the manufacturer inspected the installation after completion and approved it for operation with no mention of the missing safety device. This pull cord is not a requirement of the National Electrical Code and was not referenced in the NEC at the time of installation. (Subsequently, a reference has been added.) Unfortunately, the conveyor manufacturer, who was also a defendant in the case, settled before the trial.

As I entered the courtroom, the injured man stuck out his left hand for a handshake. I was caught by surprise and probably looked startled and embarrassed. During the trial, the injured man sat up front next to his pretty wife while she held his withered hand.

I believe that I delivered my direct testimony clearly and conveyed my opinion of the case accurately. I feel that I stood up well under cross-examination. But, at the request of the plaintiff’s attorney, the Judge directed me to stop referring to the defendant as “the electrician who may have installed the electrical work for the conveyor.”

Regardless of the facts, it was not surprising that the jury awarded the plaintiff a huge monetary award.

These are just a few of the case studies and Forensic Engineering advice from the new book, The “Complete Guide” to CONSULTING ENGINEERING. In stock in both Deluxe hard cover, paperback and EBook. Click on “The Bookstore”.


Jack’s Advice – CASES

When I first started my practice, I was the new kid and didn’t get calls for this type of work. Later, as my staff grew, I needed to spend most of my time supervising and managing the business, so I didn’t pursue forensic investigations.

Accept only cases in your field of expertise, but don’t necessarily limit them to your area of specialty. My cases as an electrical engineer included electrocutions, fires of suspected electrical origin, standard of care determinations, equipment failures, arc fault accidents, conveyor accidents, lightning strikes, and others. Yours will be different but also interesting and challenging. I wish you much success in the exciting field of forensic engineering.


John D. Gaskell, Retired P.E. (Jack)