1. Analyze the case
Whether the initial inquiry is from a lawyer, an insurance adjuster, or even an individual, Drebelbis’s work always begins with a phone call from someone with a building issue. Drebelbis begins each phone inquiry by asking questions in an effort to get to the root of the problem. “I was recently called about a stucco issue,” he says. “But as we examined the issue, we ultimately determined that the problem was about water intrusion.” While determining what the real issues are, Drebelbis often encounters clients who need help with technical issues that aren’t his specialty, and he then refers them to safety consultants, mechanical engineers, chemists, or geotechnical engineers—or he brings a specialist aboard to assist with the case.
2. Visit the site
When a project matches Drebelbis’s expertise, he conducts a site visit. Drebelbis attends most sites alone, though an attorney, plaintiff, building owner, or even a contractor sometimes meets him there. “If it’s a defined project, like a slip-and-fall case, I take my readings, observe and note physical conditions, take measurements, and occasionally talk to our client—that’s it sometimes,” Drebelbis says. Other times, the site visit requires more work, and Drebelbis must take measurements, perform testing, take photos, talk to clients, and determine if anything has been changed since the incident occurred.
3. Compile paperwork
“Once the site visit is over, we’ll begin organizing and analyzing the information we collected,” Drebelbis says. “On a typical legal case, documentation will fill three to five three-inch, three-ring binders.” Documents provided on a legal case can include pleadings, reports from other experts and police, building plans, photos, estimates, requests for payment, and discovery info; at times it reaches more than 1,000 pages. “Typically, our file contains everything from various types of communication to shop drawings and scribbled notes,” Drebelbis says. “A lot of the work … is just sorting out the jumble.”
4. Process the information
The information Drebelbis collects at a site and the documentation provided to him must be analyzed to determine if a cohesive and technically valid story emerges. The findings, analysis, and opinions are usually formalized as a report with plans, backup documentation, and pictures.
“Many people not familiar with forensic engineering believe the engineer is hired to concoct a seemingly plausible story that favors the person who hired him,” Drebelbis says. “But this is not the case.” He says engineers who approach a case in this manner run the risk of a Daubert challenge, also know as the “junk science” statute. “Engineers who cannot back up their findings and conclusions with solid technology and engineering analysis can be challenged and potentially eliminated from the case,” Drebelbis says.
5. Prepare a certificate of merit
One of the services Drebelbis is asked to perform is the preparation of an affidavit called a certificate of merit. In 2003 Texas passed a law requiring attorneys to file this affidavit when they initiate a lawsuit against an architect, engineer, or land surveyor. “The certificate of merit limits the amount of frivolous lawsuits,” Drebelbis says. “The person writing the certificate must hold the same license as the person being sued and be knowledgeable about the particular technical subject that the lawsuit addresses.” As part of his services, Drebelbis has prepared more than 40 certificates of merit.
6. Prepare to testify
If Drebelbis is able to complete a certificate of merit for any given case, it’s pretty much guaranteed the project will become a legal case. Drebelbis’s role in any lawsuit includes preparing for and giving depositions; in a few legal cases, the dispute goes to trial. “If we do go to litigation, the cases require that I further review documentation and prepare delivery of my findings and opinions,” he says. Although most of Drebelbis’s cases are completed in less than 50 hours, some can take a few weeks or extend several months or even years. However, Drebelbis never charges his clients for the time taken up by the slow grind of justice. ABQ