Past – Present – Future

3-Blog Series

By Jim Phillips, P.E.


Blog #1: What is Forensic Electrical Engineering?

Welcome to my 3-part blog series about the Past, Present and Future of Forensic Electrical Engineering. In this blog series, you’ll get insights into what can be considered some of the first forensic investigations into electrical engineering. Beginning way back in the 1700s with the study of lighting and “bell ringers” up to today’s investigations using elaborate computer simulations to recreate events. Welcome back each week to digest the next bit of insight, data and information.


Edward was an American aerospace engineer who worked on safety-critical systems. His story has become legendary among other engineers. In 1949 he was working on a special Air Force Project involving a rocket sled. He was troubleshooting sensors on the project that were not properly functioning – each had been connected incorrectly. Edward was very upset and made his thoughts known about the technician that allegedly was responsible for the problem. Although there are various accounts of exactly what was said, he was heard grumbling something along the lines of:

If there are two ways to do something, and one of those ways will result in disaster, he’ll do it that way. [1]

Why did Edward’s statement become so legendary? Because we all know him by his last name. His full name was Captain Edward Murphy and his famous statement from 1949 is known today as “Murphy’s Law” that today simply states:

If anything can go wrong it will.

Let’s face it, things do go wrong – and that is certainly true in the case of electrical systems. Whether it is from defective components, misapplied equipment, improper installation, incorrect operation, the list goes on. When a failure occurs, the results may just be a minor inconvenience. However sometimes there can be devastating results such as major economic loss, personal injury and even death. When a minor failure occurs, there will often be a root cause analysis and troubleshooting to determine what happened, how to resolve the issue and how to prevent it from happening again. However when a more catastrophic event occurs, legal action and the use of forensic electrical engineering experts are often needed.

What is Forensic Electrical Engineering?

When a major electrical accident or failure occurs, civil litigation will frequently result. As part of the process, an investigation is necessary to answer the many technical questions regarding the incident and the possible cause. Determining the cause from both the electrical equipment installation and human behavior can make this a complex situation. The investigation has to determine whether the event was the result of the equipment and/or design and installation, or human error or a combination of both. This type of investigation requires a thorough knowledge not only of the electrical system and components, but relevant safety standards, work practices and operation requirements. This requires a specialized field known as forensic electrical engineering.

The initial contact with a forensic electrical engineer is usually from an insurance company or their attorney, a manufacturer, contractor, engineering firm or others that are directly involved with the case. In my own case, it usually begins with an email where it is desired to set up a time for an initial telephone conversation. This is then followed up by providing a copy of the Curriculum Vitae and a discussion of experience as well as fees. Once an agreement is reached regarding the case, there will be a more formal meeting to discuss the details of what is considered to be known about the event so far. Many questions are initially raised and various drawings, specifications and other similar documents are provided.

In the beginning, the expert’s opinions may be verbal rather than written reports. However, the forensic electrical engineer may ultimately be required to document the results of their investigation in written reports, as well as providing testimony in depositions as well as court testimony.

For some, the term “forensics” creates images of medical examiners and crime scenes – maybe from watching too many TV shows. However the field of forensics also applies to other areas including engineering and in this case, electrical engineering. The term “Forensic Electrical Engineer” is a special category of the term “Forensic Engineer” which is based on the term “Forensic”.

Forensic: The first known use of the word “Forensic” was in 1814. Its origin is from the Latin word forensis, meaning of the forum. In ancient Rome, the word applied to the marketplace areas within ancient Rome where many types of businesses and public affairs, such as governmental debates and actions by courts of law, were conducted. Today the definition of the term forensic is: the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems. [3]

Forensic Engineering: is the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury or damage to property. The consequences of failure are dealt with by the law of product liability.

Forensic Electrical Engineering: is a more specific field of forensic engineering and includes the practical application of electrical engineering to the investigation of electrical accidents and failures.

Expert Witness: is a person who is permitted to testify at a trial because of special knowledge or proficiency in a particular field that is relevant to the case.

Although qualifications for the forensic electrical engineer may vary, generally a minimum of a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering is required. A Professional Engineering (P.E.) license may also be necessary since this may be a requirement of state engineering boards. The individual state engineering board should be consulted to determine specific requirements.

About Jim Phillips: Electrical Power and Arc Flash Training Programs – For over 30 years, Jim Phillips has been helping tens of thousands of people around the world, understand electrical power system design, analysis, arc flash and electrical safety.

Jim is Secretary of IEEE 1584 and International Chairman of IEC TC78 Live Working/Arc Flash. He has developed a reputation for being one of the best trainers in the electric power industry. Learn More

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[ 1 ] Marcus Dunk “Murphy’s Law rules!” UK Daily Mail, January 5, 2009

[ 2 ]

[ 3 ] Merriam-Webster Dictionary