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Case Study

PipelineThe following case study demonstrates the importance of taking photographs in a construction defect case, where expert testimony is required to determine the facts of the case.

Pipeline Succumbs to Pressure

An accident occurred at the pressure sustaining station of a desalination plant. The pipes in a brine disposal line blew apart when a slip-on flange apparently failed. The defendents, the designer of the pipeline and the flange manufacturer, were being sued to pay out roughly one million dollars in damages on a products liability claim. The plaintiff’s insurer then brought subrogation claims against the designer of the line and the slip-on flange manufacturer, and several contractors.

A Meeting of the Experts

All of the experts in the case were brought together to describe their findings. Attorneys for the parties were present but not commenting. Based on Pierre’s presentation of his theories, only two-thirds of the demand was paid by the defending parties. The project manager for the utility who owned the pipeline was found contributorily negligent for one-third of the demand.

The Experts Examine the Evidence

pipePierre Handl, P.E., was contacted by the attorney and the mechanical engineering expert for the plaintiff insurance company. Another engineering firm had evaluated the hydraulics in the pipe system, using computer software which only looked at the system in a steady state, with a predetermined rate of flow. This is not realistic to actual operation, where fluid dynamics in the pipeline cause spikes to occur over time. Pierre didn’t think it was reasonable to think the flange itself was defective. How was it installed? What force caused the connection to fail?

Pierre examined photographs of the pipeline and noticed a unique situation – discoloration on the pipe where the saddle supported the pipe. This discoloration showed where the pipe had been painted, so the photographs revealed that the pipe had moved horizontally. Pierre was able to determine from these facts that a pressure spike had overtaxed the flange due to a water hammer effect. His professional opinion was that the accident was a result of a design defect in the pressure sustaining station, rather than a product defect in the slip-on flange, as others had assumed. Instead, the designer used the wrong type of flange initially and should have added a surge protection mechanism to alleviate possible hydraulic pressure spikes.

Conclusions

Jane DoeExamining photographs is essential to document what occurred in construction defect cases. Take as many photographs as possible, and get an expert on-board as soon as possible. Don’t jump to conclusions; the answer is not always obvious. It may not be apparent at the time the pictures are taken, but an expert examination of the photographs can often reveal what truly occurred.

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