It's possible that an engineer without a PE license could get hauled into court, but some engineers use their license to get themselves into court.
That's one of the benefits for Walter Laird, a forensic engineer who spends his days figuring out what caused accidents, usually working for insurance companies. It's not quite like CSI, the hot TV show, but it's about as close as an engineer will get.
"I call it Sam Spade engineering. It's dynamic. You never know where the next phone call will come from," says Walter Laird, lead engineer at Forcon International of Richmond, VA.
If things go well, his evidence will be so definitive that cases won't end up in court. When an estimated 5% of the cases do go to court, "The PE license gives you credibility," Laird says.
Typical cases "are not terribly exciting," but they call for the engineers to piece together information from the accident scene to determine what happened. Laird holds mechanical and materials engineering degrees, but his work environment is not like that of his counterparts in the classroom. Forensic engineering firms charge from $150 to $400 per hour, and their worksites are vastly different from the typical engineer's cubicle.
"We had one exciting case where a high-powered speedboat's deck separated from the hull, and the boat ended up flipping over and sinking. We looked all over the bottom of the lake and were able to piece it all together," Laird recalls.
In these environments, it's not unusual for many different types of engineers to work together. For example, people in a car crash might say someone else was driving. "Then we work with biomechanical engineers who can look at the damage to the vehicle and the personal injuries and tell us where people were sitting," Laird says.
Investigations typically last a day or two, but the most complex and litigious last several years. "We'll start with 40 to 60 hours of intensive work, then go into hibernation until we consult with the insurance company, and the attorneys, and then eventually go into court," Laird says.