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META-DISCUSSION: How Participation on SEAINT Can Hurt You

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I've been meaning to mention this here for some time, but have been quite busy.

Not long ago I had the distinct privilege of participating in my first actual "trial" as an expert witness. Heretofore I have been fortunate in my forensic engineering work to not have to deal much directly with attorneys. Typically, my work has been for owners who simply need information on how to solve a problem. I have done a couple of depositions, and lots of reports and other correspondence but this is the first time in the ten years I've been doing this sort of work that things actually went to "court."

I'm using quotes because in this case it was a "binding arbitration" rather than a jury trial. However, aside from the fact that you aren't testifying in front of a jury made up of John and Jane Q. Public, but rather a panel consisting of two engineers and another attorney, everything else is the same. You call witnesses, are sworn in, and are direct- and cross-examined.

When I first got involved with the case, it was simply to provide some engineering analysis and advise the client's attorney about engineering issues. Many of those issues dealt with interpretations of the building code as well as some esoteric analysis topics. At that time, nearly two years ago, I came onto SEAINT for some consultation, gathering opinions and direction. Of course, at that time it didn't occur to me that this could actually come back to haunt me.

As it happens, thanks to GOOGLE, everything you do online is public knowledge, and the plaintiff's attorney apparently has done quite a bit of that kind of research.

I should mention here, parenthetically, that what you see on the movies and what you see in real life are exactly opposite. That is, if you see a movie about civil torts--one such that comes to mind that I have seen is an adaptation of John Grisham's "The Rainmaker"--they always depict the plaintiff's side made up of a couple of scruffy lawyers living out of their car, and the insurance company's side is a huge lawfirm with tropical fish tanks in the lobby wall and scads of lawyers and paralegals.

It's actually the other way around. The insurance companies are too cost-conscious to shell out for an army of lawyers. It's usually the plaintiff's attorneys--by virtue of the time-honored rite of "contingency fee"--that has the army and the fish tanks in the wall.

Anyway, back to my main point: The plaintiff's lawyer was able to make it appear that, since I "had to ask" questions of SEAINT, I obviously don't know what I am doing. Oh, and didn't I say in my sworn testimony earlier, that I had not spoken to anyone about this case? Etc.

It didn't help that this particular gentleman could serve as the model for the classic Texas trial attorney, complete with sneering asides, asinine editorializations and lots of yelling and hitting the top of the table. Anyway, not having foreseen any of this I was not able to answer very clearly--wasn't even sure what he was trying to get at anyway--and probably did very poorly in that part of my testimony.

In the end, we lost a case we should have won, because we were, in my opinion, completely in the right. I wonder how much effect was had by my being blind-sided by this attorney, and "confronted" with the "damning" evidence of my obvious ineptitude in the form of actually having to ask questions of other engineers.

I thought I'd mention this because I am aware of a few of us who deal with legal matters, and if this has never come up before, be advised that by my own example, it could.

Beware our legal brethren. They're out to get you.

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