Forensics: What Really Happened?

In today’s society, there are some people with a perceived notion that if something is not right or broken, it must be someone else’s fault. When dealing with damaged structures, I focus exclusively on the issues that occur in buildings, either from design defects, construction defects, or unfavorable forces of Mother Nature. Despite the perceived cause of the condition, the question insurance companies, attorneys, and other parties ask is “What really happened?” Answering this question obviously requires background information on the building, much of which can be collected by a site visit.

When visiting a site, we want to investigate:
  • Age of the structure
  • Type of construction and layout of the building
  • Locations of bearing walls and columns
  • Roof and floor framing layouts
  • Interior finishes
  • Flashing and/or waterproofing details
  • Roof construction
  • Any previous repairs or remodeling
  • Date of the reported storm event and date the damages were observed

Site visits help property owners gain an understanding of a structure’s condition by confirming the extent and cause of damage. Insurance companies and attorneys typically request a registered engineer and/or architect perform this review. There will be times where this information, along with photos of the conditions, are used to give an initial opinion that might help with processing the claim and/or determining what additional information or access may be needed once on-site.

One challenge in forensic work is timing the expert’s involvement. Engineering or architectural review does not always occur soon after the causative event, when the most damage is observable. Often, an owner believes the claim is straightforward enough that it should be resolved within reason with an agreed upon outcome. But regardless of whether it is a lawsuit or insurance claim, what happens frequently is the owner is offered a different result than they expected. At that point, an expert is retained to help determine why the “results” don’t agree and whether either is appropriate.

The question of, “What really happened?” isn’t always as straightforward and easy to pinpoint, even with the availability of detailed information. What we must rely on as industry professionals is our ability to thoroughly look at the details and piece together some general background information from our observations of both damaged and undamaged portions of structures. Providing an unbiased opinion can help owners understand the issues and make the proper decisions to address conditions appropriately.

Jason Hanlon, PE, MLSE Senior Structural Engineer

P: 651.487.7074