Category: Expert Witness

Criminal JusticeCriminal LawExpert Witnesslegaltech

Fingerprints Lifted from Social Media Photo: Expert Evidence and Impact on Criminal Defense

Friday morning, I read a really interesting article from the FindLaw Technologist blog (their legal technology blog). The headline grabbed my attention because it was about drug dealers’ fingerprints being lifted from a photo on social media application, WhatsApp. This was news to me. I had no idea law enforcement could obtain digital fingerprints or that they could be used for an arrest. In hindsight, it seems perfectly reasonable that fingerprints could be obtained this way because the cameras in our cell phones are so advanced.

Probably, like many laypeople, I thought law enforcement had to access latent fingerprints left on a physical object (doorknob, weapon, cell phone, etc.). Based on my years of watching police procedural television shows and documentaries, I assumed the fingerprints had to be dusted by an evidence technician, input to a database, and then compared to other prints in the database. Today, however, I discovered that’s not the only way to do it.

As the Findlaw article explained, “Law enforcement arrested members of a drug ring using fingerprints on a cell phone photograph. Investigators didn’t even need the suspects’ cell phone because the photo was posted on the messaging application, WhatsApp.” The photo showed a male hand holding a bag of drugs. The agency’s forensics team uploaded the photo to a fingerprint data base and they found a match. The article specifically states the officers “acting on other information” located and arrested the man.

My assumption was the officers needed additional evidence in order to make an arrest.  Authorities can likely use the image as an investigative lead and then they have to go find additional evidence to establish probable cause for an arrest.

Alas, these were only my assumptions. It’s been a long time since I spent any time on criminal procedure. As such, I have asked for some input from Walter M. Reaves, Esq. Walter is a friend and colleague I’ve met through the LegalMinds Mastermind Group. He is a criminal defense attorney located in Waco, Texas. To find more about his practice, visit waco-criminal-attorney.com.

Input from Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves:

Walter jumped on the questions I asked and elaborated on the entire concept of using digital and social media photos. Here is what he said:

“Given the way cell phones have taken control of all our lives, it’s not surprising that they are being used as evidence in criminal cases. For several years, the police have been obtaining cell tower location to place a suspect (or at least their phone) in a certain location. Evidence found on cell phones has also been used – for some reason, dope dealers seem to like taking pictures with their stash. And of course, there’s always text messages.

A new technique may be lifting fingerprints from phones. The process would utilize a picture on the phone of someone’s hand and fingers, and attempt to match that like you would a latent print developed at a crime scene. The process may be no different from what is being done now. Latent prints are placed on a card, and pictures are taken. The digital photos are what are used for comparison.

If a fingerprint on a cell phone is used, you can expect challenges from defense lawyers. The prosecutor will have to convince the court the process for making the comparison is reliable, which may be a problem.

For starters, there could be problems with manipulating the photos in order to get something to use for comparison. The photos will probably need to be enhanced in some way, and you can expect defense lawyers to challenge the way that is done. Some adjustment will have to be made for the photo itself, since no camera produces an exact representation of what it is capturing. Establishing the admissibility of the photo of the fingerprint will therefore have to be the first hurdle the State will have to meet.

Even if the State can establish the identification is reliable, I seriously doubt this is going to be a common practice. I can’t imagine many situations where it would be relevant. Maybe if someone is holding dope, and all you can see is their hand, the fingerprint could be used to establish possession. I can’t think of many other situations though. In most cases, you would think if a picture is being taken, you could identify who was in the picture. You also might have problems with identifying location, and time, if that’s important.

There will be an even bigger problem when you are trying to use the photograph to prove possession of a controlled substance. The problem is proving what the substance is. If you don’t have it, there’s no way to test; it could be baking soda just as easily as it could be cocaine.

So, it’s an interesting concept, but don’t expect it be coming to a courtroom near you anytime soon.”

Based on reading this information from Walter, I stand by my contention this is an investigative tool for law enforcement. However, such images are unlikely to be used as evidence in court. It seems there will be problems with relevance, reliability, and authenticity. These hurdles may in time be overcome as technology advances.

Input from Photographic Evidence Expert Witness Dr. James Ebert:

For a more in-depth understanding of this practice, I reached out to Experts.com member and expert witness Dr. James Ebert. Dr. Ebert is a forensic photogrammetrist who is regularly called to interpret and testify about photographic and mapped evidence in civil and criminal matters. You can learn more about Dr. Ebert’s expertise and practice by visiting his website ebert.com.

Dr. Ebert’s comments left me feeling behind the times when I heard about the use of digital photos as a law enforcement tool. Here is what he had to say:

“It has been widely known and discussed on the web for a decade or more that identifiable fingerprints can be recovered from photographs for good or bad purposes, given that the photos are of sufficient resolution, lighting, focus, and that enough of the fingerprint can be seen to allow a match to be attempted.  Faces published on the internet can, of course, also be identified through photo matching services like TinEye reverse image search, or facial recognition software.  Both fingerprints and faces can, for instance, be run on the FBI’s new Next Generation Identification system by law enforcement agencies around the country.  This does not insure false positive results as are common with all automated fingerprint or facial identifications.  I have never attempted to make identifications of fingerprints in my practice as a forensic photogrammetrist, but are certainly possible and they should be just as reliable as are those done with fingerprint or facial data collected in other ways.  I am often, however, called upon to do facial identifications from photographic evidence. Whether such fingerprints and facial identification are ethical clearly depends on whether they are done for ethical purposes.  Identification of possible criminals from fingerprints by law enforcement is an example of a good use of technologies, and if done for purposes like hacking or harassment it’s not.”

Based on Dr. Ebert’s comments, it appears this practice has been considered and possibly utilized for some time. As Dr. Ebert mentioned, there is potential for abuse in matters of hacking and harassment. I cannot speak for Walter, but I imagine he would think there is potential for abuse by law enforcement as well.

Technology is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to keep up with all the advancements. What we’re doing with this blog is trying to discover how technology impacts the criminal justice system. If you have any suggestions for future  posts on technological advancements in criminal or civil justice, please comment below.

 

 

EngineeringExpert WitnessInsurancelegaltech

Robot Rights and Liability: Do they need legal rights? Here’s what one expert witness has to say…

Have you been following the advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics? There are some really fascinating developments in the fields. Just this week I’ve read about artificially intelligent systems used to identify people likely to commit a crime (before it happens); robotics systems being used in construction; unmanned aerial vehicles; self-driving cars; and, of course, it seems a week cannot go by without a new headline about sex robots.

Last Friday, I found some news stories that were really interesting. It appears a 2017 report from the European Commission had “a paragraph of text buried deep in a European Parliament report, that advised creating a ‘legal status for robots,'” according to this article from The Daily Mail.

I found this quite fascinating and had to dig deeper. Why would we need to develop a legal status for robots? What would be the point? An article in Futurism stated, “If a robot, acting autonomously injures or otherwise wrongs a human, who will be held responsible? Some European lawmakers think that the best way to resolve this question will be to give robots ‘electronic personalities,’ a form of legal person-hood.”

To me, there is a simple answer to this topic. The owner and/or the manufacturer would be held liable. Why would society need something beyond existing negligence, product liability, and consumer protection laws?

According to the report, the European Commission does not want to give robots legal status equal to humans. Rather, they want to give them a status similar to corporations. The concern doesn’t seem to apply to your automation-style robots, but rather those capable of self-learning.

I contend we do not need new theories of liability to address this issue. It should be handled just like owning an automobile. As the owner of a car, I must have it insured. Insurance covers personal injury and property damage caused by the vehicle if I am driving it or if another driver is covered by my policy. If the vehicle malfunctions and causes damage due to a manufacturing, design, or warning defect, then I sue the manufacturer (or another injured party may sue the manufacturer). As such, owner and manufacturer are the responsible parties. My automobile doesn’t require its own legal status.

A robot, sentient or not, does not require its own legal status. It can be insured just like an automobile and the owner should be responsible for insuring the equipment. Furthermore, if it malfunctions and causes harm, the manufacturer can be held liable for any product defects.

I have asked for some input on this topic from a couple of our Experts.com members. At the time of this writing we have received a response from one expert. Dr. Harry Direen, PhD, PE, has a wide variety of expertise including electronic systems, control systems, robotics, software, signal processing, UAV’s/drones, and more. I encourage you to check out his company DireenTech.

Several questions were posited to Dr. Direen. Please see the questions and answers below.

What the expert has to say:

Me: Do you see any need for creating a legal status for robots?

Dr. Direen: No… robots are not humans, they are machines.  Despite the hype, I do not believe robot technology is anywhere near thinking on their own or being responsible for their actions.

Me: Are there any positive reasons to create a legal status for robots?

Dr. Direen: No, not that I know of.

Me: Are there any negatives you can think of in creating a legal status?

Dr. Direen: Yes, as a society we start legally blurring the lines between humans and the machines we create.  I don’t believe we elevate humans in the process, but just the opposite.  We advance the myth that humans are little more than carbon based machines with no more value than the machines we create rather than highly valued creations of our Creator.

Me: Is there any reason damage caused by robots cannot be addressed by existing legal principles such as product liability (manufacturing, design, or warning defects)?

Dr. Direen: No. Giving robots legal status would simply be an excuse to divorce engineers, designers, and manufactures from the responsibility of their products.

Me: If a robot were to fail and cause personal or property damage, would a forensic investigation apply the same principles as any other failure analysis investigation?

Dr. Direen: Yes, a robot is just a piece of technology like any other.

So there you have it. Dr. Direen and I seem to be in agreement. Existing legal and investigatory principles should apply to robots. There is no need to provide additional legal protections to machinery.

What do you think? Feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts. It is a fascinating topic. Robotics is a field where I anticipate a great deal of future litigation. As the topic evolves, I’m certain we’ll be discussing it in greater depth.

 

Expert WitnessExpert Witness TestimonyFraudLawyers

Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen’s Home and Office Searched by Feds: Attorney-Client Privilege?

Yesterday, news broke about the FBI raiding the home and office of longtime Donald Trump attorney, Michael Cohen. All the major news outlets and talking heads are discussing the matter. Naturally, I felt I should join in and add some food for thought from the expert witness perspective. Assuming the case against Michael Cohen goes to trial, there are likely to be a variety of experts called to opine on different issues. At the time of this writing, reports indicate the federal government is investigating Mr. Cohen for both bank fraud and wire fraud.

Here is what we have learned since yesterday. According to NBC News:

“On Monday, the FBI raided the law office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. They were seeking information about a $130,000 payment the attorney says he personally made to adult film star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election, sources told NBC News.

The search warrants were sought and executed by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in New York in coordination with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team after an initial referral from Mueller’s office.”

We have further discovered that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would have to consult with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if his investigation discovered evidence unrelated to Russian interference in the US election. If such information was discovered, Rosenstein would then have to decide to expand the scope of Mueller’s investigation or refer the new investigation to another US Attorney’s office. It appears the Cohen investigation was referred to the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

In essence, search and seizure of a lawyers office, where that lawyer maintains protected attorney-client communications, had to go near the top of the Justice Department. Thereafter, a warrant had to be approved by a federal judge, before the FBI could conduct the raid and seize these protected communications (among other evidence).

What about attorney-client privilege?

We should start with a simple definition of the attorney-client privilege. Here is a definition from Nolo.com: “The attorney-client privilege is a rule that preserves the confidentiality of communications between lawyers and clients. Under that rule, attorneys may not divulge their clients’ secrets, nor may others force them to.”

Finding the violation of attorney-client privilege a little disconcerting (note, I am not addressing the possible crime-fraud exception to the rule), I reached out to one of our legal and judicial ethics experts for comment. Experts.com member, Mark Harrison, Esq., is an Arizona-based civil and appellate litigator at the firm of Osborn Maledon, PA. He has extensive experience litigating and testifying in cases involving legal malpractice, legal ethics, and judicial ethics.

My request of Mr. Harrison was as follows, “Do you see any issues arising from this seizure related to fiduciary duties, attorney-client privilege, judicial ethics, or other items?”

Mr. Harrison provided me with a rather thorough explanation based on available information. Details about the subpoena or the documents seeking the subpoena have not been reported at this time. I have included several pertinent comments from Mr. Harrison, below:

“As I am sure you are aware, in order to get a subpoena issued in this situation the US Attorney had to satisfy a magistrate judge or a federal district judge that there was good cause for the issuance of the subpoena.

The potentially dicey ethics aspect involved in a situation of this kind is the risk that confidential client information – other than the information clearly covered by the subpoena – is inadvertently or unintentionally taken by the FBI officers executing the subpoena.”

According to news reports, none of us know whether Mr. Cohen has clients other than President Trump. If he does have other clients, Mr. Harrison explained, “the FBI officers executing the subpoena must exercise great care not to compromise the confidentiality afforded the information of other clients in Mr. Cohen’s files or to compromise the confidentiality of information relating to Mr. Trump that is beyond the scope of the subpoena.”

My personal experience in law firms and my professional responsibility education in law school left me with the belief that the attorney-client relationship was sacred. There was good reason for this as it encouraged clients to be open and honest with counsel so counsel could zealously represent their interests. As such, I am hoping the FBI does exercise great care in the review of these files. However, in reviewing documents, the FBI has to view the documents to know whether or not they are “beyond the scope of the subpoena.”

I had one follow up question for Mark Harrison. I asked if he thought a judge would ask an expert on legal ethics to oversee the review of attorney-client files to make sure the federal agents didn’t go beyond the scope of the subpoena? In asking this question, I also realized that the judge is likely to fill that role. However, I was interested to see if additional oversight might be necessary in this case.

Mr. Harrison said “I would be surprised if the judge or magistrate appoints an expert for that purpose unless Cohen’s lawyer seeks that oversight.”

So, based on information available to us at this point, the attorney-client privilege has or will be breached by the federal agents in their review of documents maintained by Mr. Cohen.

It’ll be interesting to see how this case develops and what other expert witnesses may be involved in a future criminal prosecution.

Does this open Michael Cohen to professional malpractice?

Some questions I have for future blog posts are as follows: Does the breach of attorney-client privilege by the FBI, expose Mr. Cohen to malpractice liability? Does the attorney have a duty to conduct himself in a way that would have precluded the FBI or anyone else from seizing all of his files? Does an attorney have a professional responsibility to avoid suspicion that may potentially place confidential client information at risk of being breached? Or, does the issuance of a search warrant protect the attorney from civil liability?

 

 

 

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionAccident SafetyExpert Witness

Tesla and Uber Self-Driving Systems Result in Fatal Crashes

In the last few weeks we have read several news reports about self-driving car accidents. Tesla and Uber, two companies leading innovation in driverless automobiles, have recently experienced fatal collisions which have hampered their autonomous testing. These are not the first instances of fatal crashes using the self-piloting systems. However, the collisions happened in such a close time frame, the public had to take notice.

On March 18, an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian. A Phoenix Business Journal article describes video of incident as follows:

“The video shows the victim Elaine Herzberg walking her bike in the middle of the road. It does not show the actual collision “due to the graphic nature of the impact,” said Det. Liliana Duran in an email. The video also shows an interior view of the driver looking down at something off and on, possibly a phone or computer screen, before looking up in surprise right before the car hits the woman.”

Due to the graphic nature of the video, we have decided not to share it here. There appears to be some elements of distracted driving involved in this crash. Human error seems to have combined with a failure by the autonomous (self-piloting) system, to identify the pedestrian and brake or take evasive action to avoid the collision.

About 5 days after the Uber crash, Tesla experienced a similar incident while their autopilot system was engaged. Engadget reported on this accident explaining:

“The driver of a Model X has died after his electric SUV collided with a median barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View and was subsequently struck by two other vehicles. The incident destroyed the front half of the vehicle and sparked a fire that involved the battery, leading to Tesla sending an employee to investigate. Witnesses reported seeing a fireball during the crash.”

In a follow-up article today, Engadget has gone on to state that the NTSB is unhappy that Tesla shared information about the accident. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, went ahead and blogged that autopilot was engaged but that the driver had removed his hands from the steering wheel for the six seconds prior to impact. The NTSB says Tesla has been cooperative in all previous accident investigations, but evidently they did not want this information made public. Also, it seems the deceased driver, had some concerns about the autopilot system according to his family.

The family claims “he had brought concerns to a Tesla dealership that his Model X had previously swerved toward the same median where the accident happened.”

What gets investigated when autopilot fails?

Readers may think that some elaborate investigation needs to take place since we are dealing with driverless automobiles. The truth is, this boils down to an automotive / vehicular accident reconstruction issue.

Certainly there is advanced programming involved and the crash data retrieval (CDR) may require new methods or new technologies to access information, but the data must be recovered nonetheless.

The NTSB even states, “At this time the NTSB needs the assistance of Tesla to decode the data the vehicle recorded.” They probably require help in accessing the data from Tesla’s proprietary system, but it is still a matter of CDR. If Elon Musk knows that the driver removed his hands from the wheel for six seconds prior to impact, he must have learned of this through the data retrieval process used by Tesla.

The same is true in the Uber crash. They already have dash-cam footage that shows the vehicle did not slow before striking the pedestrian. In that instance, an accident recontstructionist, automotive engineer, or automotive software engineer will have to analyze the self-driving sensors, data, and response of the software, to determine why the car failed to respond while on autopilot.

Both of these accidents require failure analysis. What seems new to us as a society, is that these crashes involved a failure of software, rather than brakes, tires, steering columns, or seat belt failures (failures that have become common and often result in a recall to fix a feature).

The technology and collection methods may change. However, the theories of liability and the investigation remain pretty constant. We have two automobile crashes resulting in death. They require a thorough accident reconstruction investigation to determine the cause of the accidents. Once determined, matters of negligence, product liability, and fault still apply.

 

Expert WitnessIntellectual PropertylegaltechSocial Media

Tinder v. Bumble: Swipe Right for Your Next Patent Infringement Expert Witness

Last Friday I was sitting at my desk trying to find the next topic to blog about. Friday was an incredibly slow news day and nothing had piqued my interest. So I reached out to some lawyer-friends in the LegalMinds Mastermind Group for some ideas. I received a lot of feedback with some really great ideas. However, this Tinder v. Bumble lawsuit sounded like the most fun. A special thanks to patent lawyer, Karima Gulick, for the idea.

In fact, I had not even heard about this lawsuit until Karima mentioned it. It seems that Tinder’s parent company, Match Group (think Match.com), has decided to sue Bumble for patent infringement. For those who haven’t heard of Bumble, it is another popular dating app that allows women to make the first move. It seems they are now using very similar features to Tinder. An article in The Verge described the two patents at issue:

“…one called ‘Matching Process System and Method,’ in which users swipe cards and mutually select one another, as well as ‘Display Screen or Portion Thereof With a Graphical User Interface of a Mobile Device,’ which it describes as an ‘ornamental aspect’ of Tinder’s App. The lawsuit also points to similarities between each companies’ apps, and Bumble’s descriptions of ‘swiping’ run afoul of Tinder’s registered trademarks.”

It seems Tinder is accusing Bumble of infringing on the item that really made Tinder famous (i.e. swiping). Swiping did away with all that scrolling, reading, and learning about a potential romantic interest. Who has time for that? Even if you have time, who wants to do it? Instead, Tinder allowed you to make the important dating decision based on looks and looks alone, if you’re that shallow. It does appear there is a short biography portion some might want to read, but only if the potential match fits your physical requirements per their photo.

“Swipe right” and “swipe left” became a part of our nomenclature, often used outside of dating. I’ve heard comics and late show hosts use the terminology. There is no doubt in my mind, those using the terminology associate it with Tinder. Alas, Bumble decided to use the feature as well. Probably because users liked picking their mates via the swipe method.

There are some further accusations as set forth in this article by Recode, “[Tinder] also claims that early Bumble executives Chris Gulczynski and Sarah Mick, who both previously worked at Tinder, stole ‘confidential information related to proposed Tinder features,’ including the idea for a feature that lets users go back if they accidentally skip someone, according to the suit.” This is important, because when you’re swiping for volume (because it’s a numbers game) and get into a zone you might accidentally eliminate someone you find attractive. You need to undo that ASAP.

Finally, there is the issue of Match/Tinder trying to purchase Bumble last year. They offered $450 million, which was turned down, due to the acrimonious relationship between the two companies. Is Tinder using this case to apply some pressure on Bumble, thereby encouraging a sale? Quite possible.

If the case actually moves ahead and a sale is not negotiated, we can expect to see some expert witness participation. What kind of experts? I wish I could encourage you to swipe right to view them. However, you just have to keep reading!

Intellectual Property / Patent Infringement:

Intellectual property is sort of wide ranging term for expert witnesses. A broad range of expertise fits into the category intellectual property, such as patents, patent infringement, trademarks, trade dress, copyrights, licensing, trade secrets, and more.

In the Tinder v. Bumble issue, it appears they are only suing over a couple of patents and The Verge told us what those patents are. Both patents appear to be connected with the user interface, so I anticipate we will see intellectual property experts with software, programming,  and design engineering backgrounds. There is potential need for electronic engineering expert witnesses, but I think that will be less likely as it doesn’t appear hardware is at issue in this case.

Trademarks:

The lawsuit also claims that Bumble’s use of the word “swiping” infringes on Tinder’s registered trademarks. This legal dictionary from Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute describes a trademark as follows, “A trademark is any word, name, symbol, or design, or any combination thereof, used in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from those of another and to indicate the source of the goods.”

The Legal Information Institute also tells us that “Two basic requirements must be met for a mark to be eligible for trademark protection: it must be in use in commerce and it must be distinctive.”

As I mentioned above, I knew that “swiping” was something associated with Tinder and I know that Tinder is a subscription based dating service. So, according to this layperson, the mark is being used in commerce and I recognize it as distinctive to Tinder. Now that I’ve made this information public, I cannot imagine Bumble wanting me on the jury. Luckily, the case has been filed in the US District Court in Waco, Texas.

Furthermore, a trademark expert witness retained by Bumble, may be able to provide information about “swiping” that indicates it is not distinctive. In fact, the terminology may be quite prevalent in software uses.

A Similar Matter?

The software matter I equate to this lawsuit would be the “Stories” issue between Snapchat and Instagram. Snapchat was the first social media platform to use the Stories feature, allowing users to post a continuing series of video clips or photos in order to create an ongoing story. Instagram copied it, nearly outright, and even admitted that they took the idea from Snapchat. To my knowledge, this has not resulted in litigation. However, the use of software-based features seem nearly identical and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a patent infringement and trademark dispute between Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) and Snapchat.

Requests:

As I am not practicing in this field, I think it would be great to get some feedback from a some lawyers who regularly deal with patents and trademarks.

I have asked Karima Gulick of Gulick Law and Joey Vitale of Indie Law to provide some real insight, rather than lay punditry, in the matter of Tinder v. Bumble.

UPDATE:

Intellectual property and patent attorney, Karima Gulick, has provided her insight about this case on her blog. Here is her blog post: Tinder v. Bumble: Patent dispute in app dating paradise.

Copyright and trademark attorney, Joey Vitale, has provided his insight about this case on his blog. Here is his blog post: Be careful if you “swipe”: trademark battles in Tinder v. Bumble.

 

 

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionCranesEngineeringExpert WitnessForensic Accident Investigation

Let the Finger Pointing Begin: Who is Responsible for the FIU Bridge Collapse?

[DISCLAIMER: In this post, we are going to name probable defendants based on available information. We are not determining liability or placing blame.]

One attribute of legal education is viewing an event and knowing, without a doubt, litigation will ensue; it is a blessing and a curse! I had this experience yesterday as I watched the horrific news unfold about the Florida International University bridge collapse. Issue spotting and parties were being identified within minutes after I received notice a bridge had failed in Florida.

For many catastrophic injury and wrongful death attorneys, this is a dream case. This sounds bad, I know, but hear me out. The result of this disaster is appalling and fault is abundant. None of that fault can be attributed to the victims. They were going about their day – sitting in their cars, stopped at a red light, probably admiring the new bridge – when the bridge collapsed on top of their vehicles. The victims did nothing wrong. They have no-fault (contributory, comparative, or otherwise) and, for certain, someone else is to blame.

The list of defendants will be ample. I’ve listed some of the probable defendants below. Don’t worry, these companies and institutions will be doing their own finger pointing. Whether we see it reported in the news or not, the blame game has already begun. To limit their liability, these defendants will point to others as responsible for this catastrophe, and the others will point back and point to others.

What we know:

In the City of Sweetwater, Florida, a pedestrian overpass at Florida International University (FIU) collapsed onto a notoriously busy road below. The Miami-Dade fire department confirmed six people are dead as a result. According to this article from Yahoo News, “at least eight vehicles were trapped in the wreckage of the 950-ton bridge.” Evidently, the bridge was constructed on the side of the road and was installed last Saturday.

“To keep the inevitable disruption of traffic associated with bridge construction to a minimum, the 174-foot portion of the bridge was built adjacent to Southwest 8th Street using a method called Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC). It was driven into its perpendicular position across the road by a rig in only six hours on Saturday, according to a statement released by the university.

The $14.2 million bridge was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous measure by the National Hurricane Center, and built to last 100 years, the university said.”

We can safely say the bridge did not live up to the purpose of its design. It didn’t have an opportunity to be hurricane tested because it was unable to remain standing for a whole week.

Possible Defendants: Anyone Involved in the Design, Construction, Inspection, and Erection of the Bridge

Where do I start? There are so many possibilities. Here is the list I’ve developed so far:

  • Munilla Construction Management (built and installed the bridge)
  • FIGG Engineering Group (bridge design, engineering and construction services)
  • Barnhart Crane and Rigging (moved the bridge into place)
  • BDI (structural testing and monitoring services)
  • City of Sweetwater
  • Miami-Dade County
  • Florida International University
  • Florida Department of Transportation
  • Materials Manufacturers (concrete, steel, etc.)

There will probably be other subcontractors and unknown parties who will be added to this list. The city, county, and state probably conducted inspections at different times during the design and construction of the bridge, so failures may be attributed to the municipalities as well.

Where Experts Come In:

What we have in this case is a bridge collapse. Failure analysis is the technical phrase used to determine why the bridge collapsed. The NTSB is sending their own investigative team to determine the cause for the failure. In litigation, both Plaintiff and Defense will retain a variety of experts to conduct their own analysis. Experts for all parties will have many questions to address. Here are some of the issues that come to mind immediately…

Were there defects in the construction of the bridge? If construction defects are identified, they may indicate a breach in the standard of care used by Munilla Construction Management during building of the overpass.

What about the design of the walkway? Did FIGG Engineering follow appropriate standards in designing the structure? Design and structural engineers will have to evaluate errors in the specifications which may have left the platform in a weakened and unsafe state.  This will also play a role for BDI who monitored the installation and later posted this picture, on Twitter:

 

bridge-collapse.PNG

 

Was the platform moved and installed according to crane and rigging policies and standards? Had there been a failure to secure the pieces of the bridge when moving it into place? Had the installation process added stress to components unnecessarily? This will all have to be analyzed to see if Barnhart Crane and Rigging had breached their standards of care during installation. Again, this will play a role for BDI, as they believed the move was a “job well done.”

By images and videos available in the news, we can see significant concrete slabs on top of the damaged vehicles. It will have to be analyzed and determined if the materials themselves had failed. Was the concrete, steel, or other material defective? Was it built to specifications? If not, what is the acceptable industry-standard deviation? If so, a product liability lawsuit against the materials manufacturers may also be appropriate.

All of these items will come back to the municipalities involved. Why did they retain the above-named companies? Was there a history of safety concerns with any of the firms? Were they overlooked? Did the municipalities fail to properly inspect the construction efforts? The Miami Herald covers some items about Munilla Construction Management and FIGG Engineering (and their respective work histories) in this article.

Traffic and pedestrian safety standards also come to mind as issues that may be addressed in upcoming litigation. Was there an alternative traffic route that could have been used until construction was completed? Were traffic safety procedures followed for the installation of an overpass?

There are many questions to be answered. For the victims, those answers will not ease the pain of losing loved ones. But the one guarantee we have is that one or more parties are responsible and those parties will be busy pointing the finger at each other and at others.

Business ValuationExpert WitnessLitigationUncategorized

SEC Charges Theranos CEO with Massive Fraud – Securities Expert Witnesses

Once considered “The Next Steve Jobs” or the “female Steve Jobs,” Elizabeth Holmes has fallen from grace and landed directly in the cross-hairs of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Today, the SEC filed a civil complaint against Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos, Inc. There was a separate action filed against the Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani.

The complaint alleges, in part:

“Holmes, Balwani, and Theranos raised more than $700 million from late 2013 to 2015 while deceiving investors by making it appear as if Theranos had successfully developed a commercially-ready portable blood analyzer that could perform a full range of laboratory tests from a small sample of blood. They deceived investors by, among other things, making false and misleading statements to the media, hosting misleading technology demonstrations, and overstating the extent of Theranos’ relationships with commercial partners and government entities, to whom they had also made misrepresentations.”

Oh the good old torts of negligent and intentional fraud and misrepresentation. Takes me right back to the first year of law school, when Nickelback was a hot new band, rather than the sad punchline of Internet memes. I digress.

The complaint goes on to allege that based on representations, investors believed Theranos had developed a proprietary medical device able to conduct comprehensive diagnostic tests from a small amount of blood taken from the patients’ finger. They also made representations that they would collect and transport these samples in order to complete the tests on their proprietary analyzer. All of this would be done more efficiently and economically than traditional blood testing labs.

According to the complaint, Theranos was only able to perform about 12 of the 200 tests they claimed they were capable of performing.

Let’s stop here and give a simple warning: If you are soliciting money from investors, make it very clear what you are able to achieve. Differentiate this from what you hope to achieve in the future. Do not mix the two. Otherwise you get into a bad area called misrepresentation, or in this case, securities fraud.

A wide variety of expert witnesses:

In complex civil litigation such as this, there is room for a wide variety of different experts. I can only imagine the SEC and Theranos are both using consulting experts at this time in preparation for a long drawn out litigation. The complaint has only been filed today, so expert disclosures are a way off. Here are a few types of expert witnesses or consulting experts I expect to see in this matter.

Corporate Governance:

Expert witnesses on corporate governance are highly likely to play a role in this case. Officers of a corporation are fiduciaries of the corporation. Holmes owed a duty of care to the company and to her investors. She is accused of misrepresentation which, if proven, would certainly violate the standard of care owed to shareholders and the company. I expect there will be significant dispute by the parties to prove she either did or did not violate her fiduciary duties.

Securities & Finance:

Several different types of experts who practice in the area of securities fraud may come into play. We are likely to see experienced Wall Street experts with a history in equity trading, proprietary trading, investment research, securities valuation, financial forecasting, venture capital and investment banking.

Some experts will probably have backgrounds in IPO’s, private equity financing, securities financing, and stock options financing.

In this area, I feel as though I can go on ad infinitum. That’s not true and it is probable one or two candidates will have the requisite expertise, described in this section, to address the finance and fraud related matters.

Economics:

Although the SEC is primarily suing for injunctive relief, they do mention the potential for civil monetary penalties. I would expect there will be some need for an economist (by both parties) to establish the value of Theranos and shares owned by Holmes and Balwani.

As I do not practice securities litigation and this is not a law review article, it is possible the civil penalties are predetermined by the Securities Act and there is no need to value the penalties other than by the trier of fact.

UPDATE:

Within hours of writing this blog post, I discovered that Elizabeth Holmes has settled with the SEC. According to Reuters, she will be stripped of her majority control of the company and will have to return millions of shares to Theranos. She will also pay a $500,000 fine and be barred from being an officer or director of a public company for 10 years. As of this update, Mr. Balwani has not settled with the SEC.