Forensic Investigation of Bridge Failures

Forensic engineering of self-launching bridge construction machines

Accidents and major bridge failures are often followed by legal claims and disputes. Industrialized work environments involve high investments, and disruption of production causes economic losses and financial exposure. Chains of liabilities often force one party to claim for reimbursement, and when confronted with the claim, the counterparty will likely file similar claims against other parties.

Bridge construction projects involve multiple levels of contractual relationships. Responsibilities and liabilities are complex and often crisscrossed, and additional obligations arise among the parties as a matter of law. Basically all parties on a bridge construction project have obligations and responsibilities to one another and to a wide range of third parties and can be held liable for injuries or damages resulting from breaching standard of care or duty to perform.

Each of the contracts between owner, designers, subconsultants, professionals, contractors, subcontractors, manufacturers and suppliers may be used as the basis of a claim by one party against another within the liability limitations and the statutes of limitation/repose identified by the contract. In response to a major accident, therefore, the parties with significant interest in the failure assemble failure response teams as part of their legal strategy for dealing with the failure.

The failure response teams typically include a senior-level manager of the affected party, a forensic engineer and an attorney responsible for the legal strategy; an insurance professional is sometimes added in the most complex cases. The forensic engineer may provide advice, testimony or both. Some engineers are chosen as undisclosed consultants to obtain the best technical solution, and others are chosen as testifying experts for their ability to convey expert opinions on causes and responsibilities of a failure.

Technical, business and legal analyses may differ but the ultimate goals of a failure response team are identical:

  • Implement immediate steps to avoid further harm and to mitigate losses and financial exposure
  • Identify the causes of failure
  • Determine legal accountability

Property and commercial general liability insurance policies typically cover business interruption, personal injuries and damages to third parties; however, the remediation costs are often recovered only in the presence of a builder’s risk policy since special equipment fails during bridge construction. The support of the insurance carrier should always be sought when determining the remedial plan.

Investigating failure of special equipment requires long-term practice of structural engineering, technical and business practice with mechanized bridge construction, and the ability to conduct an investigation. Since most failures originate claims, the engineer must also have familiarity with legal proceedings and working with attorneys. Bridge construction equipment is often fabricated abroad and the international arena adds further complexity.

At the end of the investigation, the engineer’s conclusions will be used to evaluate the strength of a claim and as an evidentiary tool during resolution of a dispute. In other instances the engineer’s primary role is education: if a judge or an arbitrator appoints the engineer as a confidential consultant, the engineer will educate judge, jury or arbitrator on technical issues and industry standards and will prepare them to make decisions on the dispute.

The engineer brings technical expertise, business practice and personal credibility into the forensic arena. When confronted, the engineer must demonstrate thorough knowledge of special equipment and mechanized bridge construction, and must possess the confidence and ability to deliver professional opinions that are ethically and technically correct.

Chapter 12 of Bridge Construction Equipment (2013, ICE Publishing, bestselling US title) provides an exhaustive introduction to the emergency response to failure and the forensic investigation of bridge construction machines.