A forensic engineering team can help insurance agents make sense of the risks for which they might be liable. Additionally, when claims crop up, forensic engineers can determine the cause to ensure that everybody pays their fair share of the damages.
Insurance coverage for commercial buildings offers a perfect example for how this works out. Here’s a common scenario: A real estate investment trust (REIT) needs to insure a high-rise apartment building it has just acquired in San Francisco’s red-hot rental market. A forensic engineering team plays a critical role in this coverage in four distinct ways:
1. Determining the age of the building
Older buildings are riskier than younger buildings because structural components weaken with age. Roofs develop more leaks and foundations experience subtle shifts. In cities along notorious faults, like San Francisco, forensic engineers can look into when the building had a seismic refit and estimate of how much wear and tear the city’s small quakes have taken over the years.
It’s not just shifting ground that can wear a building down. Constant exposure to salty Pacific breezes can corrode metal door and window frames, increasing the likelihood of accidents and storm damage. The age-of-building assessment also accounts for recent renovations. Forensic engineers can study the materials used in renovations to help the underwriters arrive at a more accurate risk assessment.
2. Assessing the health of internal components
Commercial buildings have three major failure points: plumbing, electrical, and HVAC. Here’s a quick look at each of these risks:
- Plumbing: Water damage from bad plumbing can have ruinous consequences — especially in our REIT’s high-rise apartment building. Forensic engineers can find out precisely what kind of pipes the building uses and how old they are. Constant water pressure wears down pipes; forensic engineers can use small cameras to look inside a building’s plumbing to see how many years of life it has left.
- Electrical: Poor wiring leads to potentially fatal fires, so it’s crucial to understand the true condition of a building’s electrical wiring. Forensic engineers know which wiring practices and power components pose the highest risks, and they understand how long a building can go before its electrical system has to be upgraded or replaced.
- HVAC: Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems have many complex mechanisms that are prone to breakdown at roughly the same time because they’re usually installed at the same time, therefore having the same life spans. So, it’s crucial for our REIT’s insurer to know when the HVAC systems need to be replaced (which must happen before a major failure leads to costly litigation).
It takes well-trained, experienced forensic engineers to help insurers understand the true risks a commercial building poses.
3. Performing a root cause failure analysis
If a water heater fails and floods three floors of our REIT’s apartment high-rise, the company needs to know exactly what happened and who is to blame. Typically, the insurer will bring in a veteran forensic-engineering team to help solve all the riddles an accident investigation site creates.
Forensic engineers understand the electrical, chemical, mechanical, and hydrodynamic forces that could trigger a water heater failure. In the course of a comprehensive failure analysis, they can find microscopic evidence of corrosion or poor manufacturing that doomed the water heater. They also can conduct laboratory experiments with similar components or computer models (or both) to recreate the incident and determine what caused it.
4. Providing expert witness testimony
Eventually, some commercial property claims end up in front of a judge and jury. In a courtroom, forensic engineers serve as expert witnesses who help establish the root cause of an incident, which helps the jury decide on an appropriate damage settlement.
It’s not enough for expert witnesses to fully understand the root causes of a claim. They also must be a convincing presence in court. They can’t let attorneys rattle or rile them, and they must understand the proper way to respond when questioned in court and in depositions.
This skill must be honed over years of courtroom experience with a diverse variety of cases. That’s why insurers are urged to work with a forensic engineering team that has a proven track record for delivering accurate, trustworthy courtroom testimony.
All these factors illustrate why it’s crucial to choose your forensic engineering team carefully. Your counterparts on the other side of a claim will certainly be doing the same.