Mechanical engineering isn't just helpful for understanding the laws of science – it might actually help the legal system interpret civil law as well.
Kent Godsted, who received his mechanical engineering degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, has been an expert witness in approximately 120 cases. To get started in this area, it helps to register with companies that act as agents, Godsted says. "They want to know what areas you are competent in and where your experience is," he says. "You need to be patient in the beginning, but, the more cases under your belt, the more you'll be called on."
After initial registration as an expert, the process often begins with a call from an attorney. "They could tell me it's about a plaintiff who fell off a treadmill," he says. "We'll talk about it and they'll ask for my history of cases and my rate sheet [what the expert witness charges]. I always tell them to give me four billed hours and I'll tell them if I agree with what their case is saying. If I don't, we'll stop the process there." Asking Godsted about the temptation for experts to agree more than disagree, he says first he wouldn't be able to sleep that way and, second, it wouldn't help business in the long run. "The expert witnesses who'll just go along with anything get a reputation," he says. "Believe me, they're not who you want in a court room."
Thousands of work-related fatalities and life-altering injuries occur each year in the construction industry, mostly caused by safety violations and equipment failures.
The next step in the process is an inspection. "I usually don't like giving a deposition without seeing, for example, the product that failed," he says. "I've been burned a couple times by skipping this - and rightfully so." Finally, you'll need to like writing, because there's almost always a technical report that's expected to be completed. "It has to be accurate but has to be something simple enough that it can be understood by someone who's not a college graduate," he says.
The report, often with pictures, is then issued. If you're working for the plaintiff, you're the first one that gets deposed. "The other side has your report as well, and you'll get grilled on it. The same questions will be asked maybe even six times. You better be able to give the same complete answer each time. Many times the case is decided in this phase. Very rarely will it actually go to trial."
Godsted says his most satisfying case involved someone who was hurt on an exercise machine. "A young guy was squatting a lot of weight—he was coming up with the weight and his knee gave out. He ended up a paraplegic." Godsted said he found that the rails intended to catch the weight if needed were too low and the next year, he says, they redesigned it. "One thing I've learned through my cases is very little changes unless someone has to pay money."
Godsted says the pay has both good months and bad months, especially in the beginning, but your income can become strong over time. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of competition for what I'm doing." he says. "There were a couple years there where I was only making $14,000-15,000 in a year doing it part-time. Now it can even be $22,000-23,000 in a month."
As far as agents, Godsted mentions the TASA Group, Experts.com, and Seak.com among leading places to contact, though there may be a charge for the listing.
"I've had a chance to travel all over the country and be a part of many interesting cases," Godsted says. "You have to believe in what you're doing, but it can definitely pay off over time."
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
One thing I've learned through my cases is very little changes unless someone has to pay money.
Kent Godsted, expert legal witness
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