Carpenter, John. (2013). Forensic Engineering - Informing the Future with Lessons from the Past -
Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Forensic Engineering organised by the
Institution of Civil Engineers and held in London, UK, 16–17 April 2013. ICE Publishing. Online
version available at:
All the World’s a Stage - Reflections on a Forensic
Engineering Moot Court Experience.
Declan T. Phillips, Department of Civil Engineering & Materials Science, University
of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.
Society’s intrigue with failures and particularly engineering failures never wanes;
perhaps this has provided the motivation for numerous books on the topic, for
example; Carper and Feld, 1997; Chiles, 2001; Delatte, 2009; Levy. & Salvadori,
1992; Shepherd and Frost, 1995; Ross, 1984, Wearne, 1999 and many more.
Embracing the fascination, this paper tells the story of an initiative between the
Department of Civil Engineering and Materials Science and the School of Law at the
University of Limerick (UL), Ireland. The collaboration, now in its third year, brings
students of law, civil engineering and construction management together to try an
engineering failure case in moot court. The forensic cases, drawn from my
professional experience, are summarised for the law lecturer and used to prepare
legal pleadings. Pleadings at hand, law teams hire technical experts to investigate
the failure on behalf of the plaintiff and defence. The experts (engineers &
construction managers) compile a technical report and provide expert testimony in
moot court. In keeping with professional practice, both teams exchange reports via
their lawyers in advance of a court appearance.
In the following paragraphs, the process of preparing for court is outlined for a
sample case and reflections on the experts’ experience provided. The tangible
benefits of the collaborative endeavour are also highlighted and some suggestions
for improving the educational experience offered.
Setting the Scene
There is a growing body of opinion that education today must break from the
traditional didactic model in preference for a more student centred learning
environment (Felder, 2012; Pink, 2009; Robinson, 2011). Solutions to today’s
challenges are invariably crafted in small collaborative teams involving people from
different disciplines and diverse backgrounds working to solve problems on a global
stage. Such approaches allow problems to be solved in more efficient and creative
ways. So, if current students are to learn problem solving skills and succeed in such
environments, then the educational methods employed at universities and institutes
of higher education must reflect the reality of modern practise. Specifically,
education must engage the learner in an experience that prepares them for an
unpredictable future; one that will certainly encompass change. It is not however
suggested that we abandon the long established practice of tutoring students
through lectures. And it is certainly not suggested that working collaboratively in
small groups eliminates the need for individual study or the need to spend quiet time
poring over complex challenges in the engineering curricula.
Instead, what’s proposed is a model that places students at the heart of the learning
process by actively involving them in carefully contextualised problems. This is best
done by using well conceived projects or triggers and these require careful planning
allied with appropriate technical and expert support. In such learning frameworks,
the student must be given the autonomy to organise and plan their work and take
responsibility for delivering an acceptable and economic solution within an allotted
time. In the civil engineering programme at UL we find this freedom produces
student engagement and motivation to learn (Cosgrove et. al., 2010, Phillips, 2010
and Phillips, 2012). We have also observed that a more student centred approach
promotes development of many industry desired undergraduate attributes without
the necessity of ‘adding on’ other courses to an already busy programme.
The subject discussed here is an undergraduate course in forensic engineering &
ethics (FEE) and involves students from different disciplines collaborating to gather
technical data, undertake analyses, interpret the results and draw conclusions based
on the evidence. This process is captured in a written report which is then used as
the basis for elucidating and defending facts and opinions in a public forum (Photo
Photo 1: Student engineer being cross examined by opposing council
At the heart of this exercise is an evaluation of each stakeholder’s ethical behaviour
in the dispute. Engineers Ireland’s Code of Ethics (Engineers Ireland, 2009)
provides the benchmark for this assessment and the students’ attention is drawn to
the following guidelines in the code:
• Adherence to an appropriate Code of Ethics is an essential characteristic of
the professional practitioner.
• Engineering is a profession requiring a high standard of scientific education
together with specialised training, formation and experience.
• Arising from the rights and obligations of the engineering profession, it is
essential that Members have a clearly defined Code of Ethics to ensure that
1. Behave at all times with integrity.
2. Remain aware of their responsibilities to themselves, to society, to their
clients, employers, employees and colleagues.
3. Strive to maintain the highest levels of competence in their respective
4. Seek to enhance and promote the standing of the profession and its
Discussion on the meaning and implications of these canons is facilitated throughout
the FEE course. In particular, two formal in class debates involving well documented
forensic cases anchor these discussions. The debates ‘open minds’ to many
challenging ethical dilemmas faced by engineers in their daily work. It is not
uncommon to find students staunchly believing in and defending their debate
position only to meekly succumb in a calm and reasoned post debate discussion - an
intriguing and rewarding experience that certainly would not emerge, at least in my
experience, in a didactic educational model. As the cases investigated for moot court
are drawn from my experience as a forensic engineer, detailed case records and
information are available for examination including pre-trial depositions in some
cases (of course, names of all parties involved are removed from the documents).
The database of available failures is summarised in table 1 and a summary of one of
these cases is now presented.
Example Case: That Sinking Feeling
An extension to an existing steel framed building in a known karst area resulted in
the activation of solution activity. The site was excavated into a hill along the eastern
side of the property to permit the floor level in the extension to match the floor level
in the existing building. The depth of cut varied from ≈1m at the northeast of the site
to ≈4m along the south of the site. A void in the overburden soil developed during the
earthworks. It was excavated to bedrock, plugged with concrete and the work
proceeded as normal.
As a result of this discovery however, a site investigation was commissioned to
investigate the bedrock for voids within the build area. Five rotary percussive holes
were drilled and rock cores recovered. Shortly after the drilling, a second surface
depression appeared in close proximity to one of the borehole locations. Heavy
rainfall over a period of days and failure to grout the exploratory holes (normal
practice in karst landscapes) are believed to be responsible for the new ground
movement (Photo 3). Incomplete surface water drainage made the condition more
acute by discharging concentrate water flows in the vicinity of the open borehole. A
legal dispute ensued.
Photo 3: Surface subsidence and open core hole.
How the Collaboration Works
At the start of semester, the FEE lecturer gives a presentation to the law students on
‘what engineers do’ and how they can assist in providing technical insight and expert
evidence in legal disputes. The civil engineers and construction managers also
attend the presentation. The law lecturer reciprocates closer to the moot court date
by outlining the structure of the legal system in Ireland and providing guidance on the
rules of evidence and delivering expert evidence. Useful guidance for court
preparation is also provided in Lewis (2003) and Kaminetzky (1991). Briefing notes
are provided to guide the technical experts through unfamiliar aspects of the
process. In addition, learning seminars or lectures are provided on topics such as;
reasons for construction failures, undertaking forensic investigations, writing a
technical report, conducting load tests and back analysing well documented
engineering failures e.g., Transcona Grain Elevator bearing capacity failure or the
Hyatt Regency Walkway collapse.
Interactions with lawyers
A schedule is agreed for the duration of the project and is summarised in table 2.
The technical experts and lawyers meet (outside scheduled class time) to discuss
the case, brief each other on the case requirements, in addition to expectations and
duties required for a successful partnership. Unfamiliar terms and procedures are
explained by both sides and a schedule of work proposed for their next meeting.
Borehole not grouted
Downpipe discharging to
Table 1: Sample forensic engineering cases from the author’s personal experience.
City garage in distress Salt aggravated corrosion of a below ground
multi-storey reinforced concrete flat slab car
Domestic house basements The plain concrete basement walls in a row
of detached houses failed immediately after
Underpinning of terraced house to
facilitate a deep basement construction
on the adjacent development
Poor underpinning practice resulted in the
collapse of a 23 foot section of party wall.
Full-scale load test of a steel framed
church with eccentric connections
Builders concern for the structural integrity
and robustness of the eccentric connections
Collapse of a seven storey steel
framed office building over car park
No where to go – a split level car park
surrounded on three sides
Missing or ‘locked’ expansion joints in a
precast concrete T-beam structure
experiences structural distress.
The cracked and popped concrete slab Numerous issues with quality control of
concrete manufacture, slab on grade
construction and soil compaction.
A dangerous fraternity An old red brick building moved dramatically
due to lateral ground movements during
caisson construction on the adjacent site
Ethics of the structural engineer
Tilting tanks and their rescue Bearing capacity failure during hydro-
The cost of not having a site investigation
The day the pier collapsed A surcharge load on adjacent ground
resulted in a slip circle failure that wiped out
the adjacent 100 year old timber pier.
Those Pesky Trusses 1 Failure during construction due to wind
loading and inadequate bracing
Those Pesky Trusses 2 Failure due to drifting snow.
A lesson in RC Detailing Emergency changes required when concrete
could not flow around a dense array of steel
bars from radial beams arriving on a central
Pile load test failure Lack of local knowledge led to incorrect
design of driven in-situ piles. Drained
conditions assumed when in reality
undrained conditions prevailed.
Problems during the construction of a
combined bank and apartment building
CFA Piling too close to existing building
resulted in structural damage
That Sinking Feeling - The extension
construction and ground investigation
led to building cracking
The excavation of overburden and non
grouting of subsequent SI probes in a known
karst area led to cracking in a new building
Mitchell Street Terraced Housing Building on an old municipal landfill
School fire poses integrity doubts for
Load testing roofs of rooms adjacent to the
fire – steel frame
Cracking in an old dwelling due to
Driving sheet piles adjacent to an existing
dwelling cause structural cracking.
Both teams then advance their research independently and re-convene on an
agreed date to assess progress. Engineers work in teams (Photo 2) to brainstorm
the problem, develop a plan for investigation including research and testing (if
necessary). The brainstorming exercise results in a hypothesis that requires case
specific data for verification. The experts make a written request for this data to the
FEE lecturer. If the material requested is available, it is provided and the hypothesis
tested against these data, validated or modified as required. Relevant material that
is not requested but is available will not be offered. So, the team that explores all
possible failure modes, including ones less favourable to their client, are most likely
to succeed in moot court.
Photo 2: Student engineers brainstorming.
Day in Court
Having tested the veracity of their report findings, expert teams arrive in court
prepared to give evidence. As is customary, the courtroom protocol resides with the
judiciary who invite opening statements, instruct legal teams, call witnesses etc. The
moot court proceedings are video recorded and uploaded to the university’s learning
management system for subsequent viewing. This has proven to be a valuable
resource for students to improve their communication skills, professional appearance
and demeanour along with verifying the clarity and exactness of their evidence.
What the students say
The following are just two reflections on the moot court experience. These generally
reflect the views of the (63) engineering students taking the course. In fact, the
module is very well received and obtains top scores in post module student surveys.
I have learned a great deal during this experience and I believe I am
better prepared for professional life as a result. I have learnt a lot about
teamwork during my time here but this project took it to the next level
and was a real eye opener for me. Before, we generally worked in
teams with people of the same discipline as me; who had a similar level
of knowledge about the project topic and understanding of the material.
This time however our team consisted of law students who had no
previous experience with building materials such as concrete and the
issues associated with it and similarly, I had very little knowledge of the
legal issues within the project which had to be addressed. It required a
much greater effort than I first anticipated explaining my research and
technical findings on the case but I now realise I must take my audience
and their backgrounds into consideration when trying to convey
technical information and choose appropriate language to facilitate
understanding and meaningful communication.
Table 2: Programme schedule
Wk 1 o Law and engineering lecturers agree on legal cases to be tried
in moot court.
o Law and engineering teams of 4 – 5 students assigned to each
Wk 2 Civil engineering lecturer presents to law students on civil
engineering & how lawyers can expect to interact with the
Wk 3 Law teams make initial contact with civil engineering and
construction management teams. Legal pleadings discussed and
legal instruction issued to the engineers for the defence or
Wk 4, 5, 6, 7 Engineers undertake research, testing and analyses in support of
their case. This also requires regular briefing sessions with their
legal team – the essence of the written report is sculpted during
Wk 8 o Expert report is written, proofread, revised, proofread again and
submitted to the lawyers via the online learning management
o Reports exchanged between expert teams via their respective
lawyers – both sides familiarise themselves with the content and
technical positions of the opposing side.
o Law lecturer presents to civil engineering and construction
management students on the law in Ireland and information
relevant for engineers interacting with lawyers e.g. giving expert
Wk 9 Moot court.
Wk 10 Moot court.
Wk 11 Student reflections & peer and self assessment submitted online.
Also I learned it is much more difficult to organise group meetings
between people who have clashing timetables and various other
deadlines and projects which they are focused on. Greater
communication and collaboration is needed to facilitate everyone’s
needs and handle their other obligations. To do this you must lead by
example and be willing to make concessions as we have to cooperate
with each other to ensure the team works efficiently and smoothly. I
think this was a major issue at the beginning of the project and
possibly a reason why so many of the trials were delayed combined
with the fact nobody was stepping up as a leader within the group to
direct work, sort out clashes with timetables and also inspire other
group members to participate fully in the project. I noticed this and
tried to rectify it by standing up and taking a leadership role within the
group. The group as a whole worked much more effectively after this.
Looking back on it perhaps the most valuable experience I got was
being the witness on the stand during the moot trial itself. It was
intimidating at first especially with the courtroom environment and the
law students wearing their gowns and microphones set up. It seemed
very realistic and daunting but once I got up onto the stand and started
to answer the questions my nerves subsided and I grew in confidence.
I was very proud of my achievement and was thrilled when I heard the
judgment. This experience as a whole was very rewarding for me and
although it had its frustrating moments it was an enjoyable exercise
which will stand to me in the future. My eyes were also opened to the
ethics associated with engineering and how a professional should
conduct himself and the responsibilities he must bear in his work
whether it be designing, constructing or investigating buildings. This
was most definitely a very beneficial experience.
Looking back on the last twelve weeks of Forensic Engineering I can
honestly say I enjoyed the module and found myself looking forward to
I suppose it is hard to teach a person ethics at this stage in our lives
as most of us will already have decided what is right from wrong.
However from a professional ethics point of view I found my
knowledge in the area increased as a result of the different case
studies. The case studies were dealt with well in the lectures as we
were given the facts of a particular situation and then it was up to us to
decide individually what/who we thought was right/wrong. The
discussions in class were great as a fellow student might make you
think & evaluate your own decision just as much as the lecturer or
slide could. I found the case studies very interesting. Sometimes while
doing other project work, if I found myself getting bogged down or
needing a break I found myself looking up the case studies and having
The moot court was an interesting exercise and one which was totally
different to anything I have experienced in other modules throughout
my four years at U.L. It really outlined how as an ‘expert witness’ we
had to tell the facts and not let our emotions interfere with the
evidence we presented i.e. no matter what/who we thought was right
or wrong we just had to present the facts and answer the questions
asked of us honestly. Though it was noted how we could advise the
lawyers to put emphasis on a certain fact.
Challenges and Contemplated Improvements
While the normal university scheduling challenges of room size and availability exist,
this is not an obstacle when staff and students see the benefits of collaborating. It
does however require all parties to do extra work outside the normal timetabled
hours. The law students are in the second year of their programme while the
engineers and construction managers are in their final year (year 4). Over the past
three years there has been a delay in the lawyers contacting the engineers. This is
problematic for the engineers given the amount of work required to read the case
information, investigate the failure, write and exchange expert reports and prepare
for trial. It made meeting the deadline stressful and adjournments had to be
facilitated on a number of occasions. Also, when the first moot court were run three
years ago, it was evident the judiciary; reading from a prepared script, had
predetermined the outcome, without any reference to expert testimony. Their
decision was based solely on case law. This has been addressed in the interim by
the addition of ‘context seminars’ by both the law and FEE lecturers. These appear
to have helped the lawyers engage meaningfully with the engineers in resolving
technical disputes. The cut and thrust of the trials is now much livelier as the expert
testimony along with case law are at the heart of the determinations. For this
outcome, discipline, teamwork and mutual respect is required on all sides.
Being novices to the trial process, it is obvious that both the lawyers and engineers
would benefit from some hands-on tuition in preparing for trial, giving evidence and
asking and answering questions - interestingly, student reflections do acknowledge
that no amount of preparation can compensate for ‘experience in the dock.’ A visit to
court to observe a civil trial and inviting experienced engineers and lawyers to role
play in moot court are under consideration. Finally, an evaluation tool is currently
being developed in conjunction with the law lecturer to measure the effectiveness of
the moot court as a learning experience for both law and engineering students.
There can be little doubt that this experience leads to motivated and enthusiastic
students. The autonomy afforded to the students means they are driven to succeed.
The added challenge of performing before their peers in law (who they do not know)
raises the bar even higher. I believe the exercise gives the students a real
experience of being a Professional Engineer and a glimpse into the interesting,
challenging and rewarding career that lies ahead. On ethics, the students have
developed a greater awareness of their ethical responsibilities to society, their
employer and the profession they represent. It is fair to say the ethical dilemmas
within the legal cases produced engagement and emotions rarely encountered in the
classroom. I guess in matters of the heart, we’re all on the same footing and
everyone’s opinion is valid. All told, the rewards from this educational experiment far
outweigh the effort required in organising and facilitating the experience.
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