How Experts Approach Catastrophic Structural and Building Failures

By Nugent, William J. | Defense Counsel Journal, October 2002 | Go to article overview

How Experts Approach Catastrophic Structural and Building Failures


Nugent, William J., Defense Counsel Journal


Experienced technical experts will be able to meet and overcome many of the obstacles that may tend to impair their investigations

IN JUNE 1981, elevated walkways spanning the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel in Kansas City collapsed during a Friday evening social event, resulting in more than 100 fatalities.

In April 1987, a bridge carrying the New York State Thruway over the Schoharie Creek near Albany collapsed, sending 10 motorists to their deaths.

In October 1999, a glass window fell from the 29th floor of the CNA building in Chicago, killing a pedestrian on the street below.

Fortunately, catastrophic failures like these are rare. When they occur, the importance of obtaining the right technical experts to assist in the ensuing investigation should not be underestimated. Not only can experienced experts provide leadership for technical aspects of an investigation, their input can be quite useful when dealing with non-technical issues as well.

THE INITIAL CALL

When called to participate in the investigation of a catastrophic failure, the first impulse of an engineer who specializes in this type of work is to drop everything and head for the site. While immediate response is a necessary and an important part of a successful investigation, there are several items an experienced expert will consider before accepting the assignment.

First, it is important to check for potential conflicts. Failure to do so can lead to embarrassing or worse situations when a conflict is found after the assignment is accepted and work has begun. An experienced expert will ask: What is the building or structure that collapsed? Has my firm worked on it previously? Who are the involved parties? Have we worked for any of them before?

Most firms maintain databases of current and past assignments that, by using today's technology, can be checked quickly for potential conflicts. It should be noted, however, that previous work on the structure or for one of the involved parties by experts or their firms does not necessarily create a conflict. Often the previous involvement is not directly related to the current situation, and parties are willing to provide waivers or otherwise agree that no conflict exists.

Before accepting the assignment, the expert should develop a clear understanding of who the client will be and what the caller sees as the expert's general scope of work. Given a choice, most experts would prefer to work for one of the major players in the incident. Experts also should beware of situations in which a less-than-scrupulous caller may be attempting to retain them for a nominal role to prevent them from later accepting an assignment from another party in the case.

To avoid misunderstandings, it is appropriate for experts and clients to agree in writing, usually in the form of a short letter, to a general scope of work, billing rates and terms before work begins. A more detailed contract and scope can be developed after the initial site visit.

Of course, experts should be aware that while they are assessing the desirability of accepting the assignment, the caller is attempting to assess whether the expert has the appropriate background, experience and skills to meet the client's needs. Experienced experts will have readily available information about similar past assignments and references that can assist in making the decision about offering the assignment. Because time is of the essence in most catastrophic situations, attorneys or others who often retain investigative experts should consider interviewing firms and individuals that specialize in this type of work prior to the time they are needed. Most experts are more than happy to meet with potential clients and present their qualifications, past experience and approach to projects.

NON-TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The actions taken shortly after a catastrophic structural or building failure have a significant impact on the success of the investigation and in many instances the speed with which the building or other structure can be repaired and put back into service. …

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