Engineers in the Courtroom

Association of Construction and Development
October 10, 2012 — 1,157 views  

Engineers in the Courtroom

Communicate clearly and a jury will listen to you. Communicate poorly and you will be ignored. The keys for effective testimony are simplicity and analogy. Of course, as an expert witness, most, if not all, of your testimony will be about complex matters. Your challenge is to take this complexity and answer the attorneys' questions in a way that a layperson can understand. The attorney who retains you will spend a lot of time preparing you for your courtroom testimony. He or she will review the facts of the case and will drill you on the conclusions you reached in your report.


The attorney who retained you will present your credentials to the jury through the process of voir dire, the questioning process that happens before you begin to testify. Let your credentials speak for you. When you begin to testify, avoid the inclination to show the jury how much you know. They will have heard your credentials and they know that you're an expert. The worst thing you can do is try to show the jury how smart you are. Your task is to make a complicated subject easy to understand.


The best example of an expert who knew how to make the complex simple was Nobel laureate physicist Dr. Richard Feynman when he testified before the Rogers Commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The investigation had centered on the failure of the O-rings, the rubber gaskets that sealed the joints on the rocket's booster engine. Rather than discuss the detailed physics of the issue, Dr. Feynman displayed a small O-ring and showed all present how flexible it was. He then plunged it into a glass of cold water and demonstrated how it became brittle, the problem that occurred when the Challenger lifted off in below freezing temperature. Here was this Nobel Prize winner with a PhD from Princeton demonstrating with kindergarten simplicity.


No matter what is your field of expertise, your challenge when in the courtroom is to communicate all of the complex material in your report in a way that a juror can grasp. Just as Feynman showed the commission, and anyone in the world who watched the taped testimony, how a complex system broke, your job is to do the same thing. Make it accessible to the lay persons on the jury. Expert engineers who can simplify complexity can expect to be hired regularly.

 

Association of Construction and Development