Expert Witnesses' Know-how

Author: Yana Alexis. St. Clair, Esq.

Expert Witnesses' Know-how

A brief insight on the use of the professional knowledge and electrical engineering expertise as a help to the legal system and the world at large.

In our last couple of issues we engaged in a discussion about expert witnesses in civil and criminal trials.  Originally we focused on the role that experts in various areas requiring specialized knowledge in a field play in the development and decision making necessary to achieve a just outcome in such legal matters, as well as what specifics and requirements would qualify you to become one.  Subsequently, we turned to how it is precisely, that you would go about becoming an expert, and most of all, why you would want to be one? We delved into reasons such as professional prestige, the thrill of being part of this exciting process, and last, but of course always welcomed, what may often be, substantial monetary compensation.

We now turn to a much more practical and technical aspect of this discourse.  In the event that we have sparked your interest in delving into this extracurricular activity, if we may dub it so, in what instances and types of matters, would your expertise be of necessity to attorneys and clients? While there are a myriad of situations where a power issue may lead to unfavorable, or in some cases, catastrophic results, for purposes of brevity we will address the most prevalent ones. The matters which immediately come to mind, fall into three major categories: 

  • Physical injury, or sometimes accidental death
  • Property damage
  • Blackouts

One example which may lead to serious bodily injury, of potentially fatal consequences, would be a break in the current circuit.  As we all know, current transformers convert the primary current to secondary current used by the relays in the control house. Now, say something causes a break in the current circuit. This would lead to the creation of very high voltage, and undoubted injury, or death, to any individual present in the immediate vicinity. Naturally it may also result in substantial property damage, but needless to say, the former is of much graver consequences.  In the event that such an occurrence takes place, the victim, or even more unfortunately, his family, would be sure to seek monetary compensation from the power company. 

This is where the expertise of a protection engineer comes in.  For example, an engineering expert might testify that connection at a terminal of the current circuit was loose, due to perhaps not being tightened sufficiently, or loosening over time.  This in turn may be the result of improper physical inspection, or failure to install condition monitoring equipment.  In either event, whether directly, or through vicarious liability, the power company will likely be of fault, and required to pay substantial monetary compensation.

Another potential, and commonly most glamorized in the media occurrence, would be an event where the distribution line breaks, the protection system fails to detect the broken conductor, and the line remains energized.  The catastrophic consequences are numerous, and clearly apparent, from an electrical fire leading to immeasurable property damage, to the electrocution of any bystanders, and to mention the disastrous results in the event that this occurred near a body of water.  While any lay person can understand all of the above, what people want are answers, and what is necessary for a jury to make a proper conclusion, are explanations for what the cause may have been.  This is when an expert would come in and testify, that perhaps, the reason for this malfunction, was that the protection system was not set properly, or it did not support the open conductor or high impedance fault detection.

Finally, but of indisputably vast reach, is the grave system downfall of a blackout.  All those personally affected by such an event, as well as the world at large, quickly become aware of the massive disruption, on innumerable levels, that this leads to, and in almost every instance, results in a class action lawsuit.  However many blackouts are the result of "acts of God," and since we can't hold nature legally accountable, there is no one to hold monetarily liable.  Of course, an expert may come in and state that the cause was a sequence of events, such as multiple protection relays operations, where, had the proper protection function been used, such as load encroachments in Zone 3 of the distance relays, as was the case in the North East 2003 blackout in the United States, many could have been avoided.
These are just a couple of examples showing the absolute need of the testimony of power system protection professionals as experts, but I'm sure you can think of many more, and perhaps decide to lend your expertise in the resolution of such crucial matters.

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