Forensic naval architecture is investigative naval architecture for the benefit of the courts. Like other investigative specialists, a forensic naval architect is called an expert witness. Expert witnesses are required to explain complex technical issues so that judges and juries can understand what the case is about in order to reach a verdict. Many times, the findings of expert witnesses lead to a settlement before the case goes to trial.
My work as a forensic naval architect started in 1983, just as the US was losing the America’s Cup for the first time. I was in Miami at a conference, and I received a telephone call from an attorney in Florida who needed a naval architect to explain fiberglass boatbuilding techniques in defense of a production sailboat builder against a disgruntled owner. After a chain of recommendations from one professional to another, the attorney ended up on my telephone. Long story short, this attorney coached me through the case which culminated in court with a favorable verdict for the boatbuilder. This attorney and I went onto a number of cases together in the following years. There have been wins and losses – one attorney told me that you haven’t really cut your teeth as an attorney, or as an expert, until you have lost your first million-dollar case.
I wrote an article for Professional Boatbuilder magazine, issue #50, Dec/Jan 1998, in which I described a few of my cases that reflected interesting points of law. You can see the original manuscript of that article here.
The types of cases facing an expert naval architect can be wide ranging and varied. Design and manufacturing defects as well as bad workmanship involve a lot of cases, and these can manifest themselves in accidents, injuries, and deaths. A number of cases were for sailboat dismastings, and a few others involved keels and rudders that fell off and boats that leaked and sank. One large case involved fraudulent insurance claims by a boat manufacturer after a hurricane destroyed parts of his plant. Improper boat operation was involved some cases where people were injured or drowned. One case was the first to be tried under the federal Vessel Hull Design Protection Act, which we lost, but that case later led to the law being changed so that infringements would be easier to prosecute. I had a patent infringement case in which a patent owner claimed a boat builder infringed on his patent, but we were able to provide a worthy defense that won the case for the builder showing he did not infringe on the patent.
Since I am retired now and sailing extensively on my boat, I may not be able to work easily as an expert witness. Expert work often involves on-site inspections of a damaged boat, extensive travel, meetings with attorneys and depositions, and cases that can take months or years to either settle or get to court. But I will pick and choose those cases that may come in over the transom which I may be able to handle, and if I can’t, I can probably recommend someone who can.
Eric W. Sponberg
Naval Architect (retired)