Very few individuals can write something perfectly the first time, not even professional writers. Important reports, articles, school assignments, manuscripts and even e-mails should be drafted and reviewed with fresh eyes and sometimes with input from peers who may see things that are incorrect or need further clarification.
In publishing, peer-reviewed journals send articles to knowledgeable professionals who carefully examine them to test the hypotheses, verify the facts and ensure that the information presented is accurate and not “made up stuff.” The comments are shared with the author, who has the choice to accept or reject the recommended changes and comments.
Peer review common practice
The process is similar in the engineering field, where peer reviewing another professional’s work is a common practice. “Every report is reviewed by a licensed professional engineer,” explains Brian Erickson, an engineer with PIE Consulting & Engineering. “It can be written by an engineer or someone who is in training, but for 90% of the reports the final review is done by a senior engineer. Each report gets at least two sets of eyes, sometimes three if a supervisor looks at it.”
Each engineering report also bears the stamp and signature of the engineer who wrote the report or of the professional engineer who is supervising the project.
While every engineering firm has its own internal review system, the practice of peer reviews is common in the engineering field. Like a physician who offers a second opinion on a patient he may not have seen, the individual offering the peer review may have more experience, but has usually not visited the property involved. The use of the peer review process is even outlined in the ASTM Standard E2713-11, Standard Guide to Forensic Engineering.
Justin Kestner, CEO of Haag Engineering, said that each report generated by their company receives a technical review and a grammatical review. “An engineer does the technical review, either someone at the senior engineer level or higher, and an administrative staff member handles the grammatical review.”
Aerial view of Long Beach, N.Y. (Photo: Thinkstock)
One of the most widely reported Hurricane Sandy cases involving an engineering peer review concerned an almost 80-year-old rental property about a block off of the beach in Long Beach, N.Y., owned by Deborah Ramey. According to court documents, Ramey reported that the home had been damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy and filed a claim with her insurer. Wright National Flood Insurance Company hired U.S. Forensic, LLC, an engineering company based in Metairie, La., to “perform an evaluation of the building and to determine the cause and extent of the reported damage.”
Like insurers who hire independent adjusters, engineering firms sometimes contract with engineers to supplement their existing staff. U.S. Forensic hired George Hernemar, PE, who went through the company’s training program in late November 2012, and the Ramey investigation was his first for the company.
Hernemar inspected the house on Dec. 4, 2012, and stated in his initial conclusions:
1. The physical evidence observed at the property indicated that the subject building was structurally damaged by hydrodynamic forces associated with the flood event of October 29, 2012. The hydrodynamic forces appear to have caused the foundation walls around the southwest corner of the building to collapse.
2. The extent of the overall damages of the building, its needed scope of repair combined with the age of the building and its simple structure, leads us to conclude that a repair of the building is not economically viable.
When Hernemar finished his draft report (his first flood claim for FEMA), it went through U.S. Forensic’s internal peer review process. “Once an engineer hits draft report complete, it goes to the grammar reviewer for formatting and the grammar review,” explains Gary Bell, managing partner of U.S. Forensic. “Then it goes to the technical peer reviewer. The peer reviewer uses the redline feature of Microsoft Word and puts in changes, comments, questions about information and he sends it back to the engineer, and he has to accept or reject each change.”
When the technical reviewer received the report, he saw there were problems and asked Bell how specific he should be in his comments. Bell replied that he should mark any questions or issues because it would be the best way for Hernemar to learn their processes, what he had missed and what to look for during future inspections.
Based on the photos Hernemar provided with the report, it was obvious there was sand around portions of the exterior foundation of the house, covering some areas of the foundation. Hernemar had also not gone into the crawlspace of the home to see what damage was visible from the interior.
The peer reviewer recommended that the sand be removed from around the house and that Hernemar return and conduct a more thorough inspection of the foundation from the crawlspace below. What transpired during the second inspection was what set off the chain of events that called into question the practice of peer-reviewed engineering reports.
Seaside Heights, N.J. (Photo: Thinkstock)
What the report said
A report signed and sealed by Hernemar and submitted to Wright National Flood Insurance Company on December 28, 2012 included the following conclusions:
1. The physical evidence observed at the property indicated that the subject building was not[emphasis added] structurally damaged by hydrodynamic forces, hydrostatic forces, scour or erosion of the supporting soils, or buoyancy forces of the floodwaters associated with the subject flood event.
2. The physical evidence observed at the subject property indicated that the uneven roof slopes, leaning exterior walls and the uneven floor surfaces within the interior of the building, were the result of long-term differential movement of the building and foundation that was caused by long-term differential movement of the supporting soils at the site and long-term deflection of the building framing.
The findings were the exact opposite of what Hernemar had stated in his initial draft report. Based on this report, Wright Flood did not pay for any structural damage related to the claim, but did pay for interiors and contents. The company did not offer policy limits as Ramey requested because the report indicated that the building was not structurally damaged. After receiving this report, Ramey indicated that parts of the foundation were still covered in sand, and she requested that Wright reinspect the property a second time.
Following the second inspection on January 25, 2013 after the sand was removed, U.S. Forensic offered two supplemental conclusions:
1. Based on the conditions observed at the property during our follow-up inspection, we cannot rule out that hydrodynamic forces and buoyancy forces of the floodwaters damaged the lower reaches of the exterior siding material at the west end of the south wall of the building and displaced a leveling block from between the pier and beam in the crawlspace area beneath the southwest corner of the building.
2. In order to repair the structural damage to the building caused by the floodwaters associated with the flood event of October 29, 2012, we recommend that the displaced block between the foundation pier and floor beam beneath the southwest corner of the building be replaced with similar materials and that the floor framing be re-leveled. The damaged siding and parging at the southwest corner of the building, approximately 45 square feet, shall be replaced with similar materials. All repairs shall be performed by qualified contractors and in accordance with applicable state and local building codes and standards.
Charles Mooney poses for a photograph at the reconstruction site of his beach home, Friday, March 13, 2015, in Normandy Beach, N.J. Mooney filed a lawsuit Friday against an insurance company that it alleges defrauded him out of the sales tax in his Superstorm Sandy claim. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
How did the draft report get released?
According to Bell, while Hernemar was conducting the second investigation, he said he left his bag with the draft report on the kitchen table and went into the crawlspace to get photos and measurements. He said that the owners removed the report from his bag and took a photo of it. The homeowners claim that Hernemar showed them his draft report on the computer screen. The photos produced of the report in court show it on a clipboard. Robert Kaible, Ramey’s husband, later testified that he took photos of the first page of the report that Hernemar brought with him.
During an evidentiary hearing, Ramey said that the insurance company changed the report submitted by U.S. Forensic. Representatives from U.S. Forensic attended the hearing at the insurer’s request and explained the investigation and peer review process to the judge. Hernemar testified under oath that he had accepted the changes and signed and sealed the final report because he believed it to be correct.
According to Bell, the only person who had evaluated the report at that point was the magistrate judge, who took issue with the peer review process and said it was “gamesmanship.” His opinion launched a media firestorm and called into question the findings of countless engineering reports and the peer review practice used by engineers.
Wright Flood paid Ramey $80,000 for the damage sustained, well under the $250,000 cap for the policy. Believing that U.S. Forensic and Wright Flood had colluded to alter the report so she would receive a lower payment, Ramey questioned the changed report and filed a lawsuit against Wright Flood. Similar practices have been alleged in other cases and in November 2014,U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary Brown questioned the use of the peer review. Saying he feared there were more conflicting reports, he issued an order demanding that all insurance companies being sued by Sandy homeowners release all information related to engineering and adjusting reports, including photos, reports and notes, and that all draft versions of the documents be provided to the court for review.
When questions were raised about the accuracy of their engineering report, the law firm for U.S. Forensic, The Demmons Law Firm, LLC, hired another engineering firm to conduct an outside review and provide their opinion on the peer review process, the process used by U.S. Forensic, the substance of the reports, and the validity of the conclusions. James Cohen, PE, who was a structural engineer and the associate principal in the New York office of Arup, an international engineering and consulting firm at the time, conducted the review. He found that the initial draft report prepared by Hernemar “contained gross errors regarding observed damage and cause and was clearly a draft report not intended for issue.”
Cohen also found that the “report ultimately issued by U.S. Forensic following the peer review of Mr. Hernemar’s draft report … remedied the gross errors regarding observed damage and cause and is reasonable and accurate in its content and conclusions.” The supplemental report after the visit on Jan. 25, 2013 was also found to be “reasonable in its content and conservative in its conclusions.”
In this Oct. 15, 2013, file photo, a fence closes off the ruins of an oceanfront home in Mantoloking N.J. that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry, File)
The reporting process
Engineers working for FEMA are typically paid a flat fee for their expertise, regardless of their conclusions. Interviews with engineers from multiple firms confirmed that no reputable engineer would be willing to jeopardize his or her reputation and credentials by filing a false engineering report.
“A client ‘not liking the answer’ is never a reason to change the report,” says Randy Clarksean, Ph.D., P.E., vice president of failure analysis for ARCCA, a Philadelphia-based forensic engineering firm. “The engineer investigating the loss or event should prepare the same report — no matter whose name is on the check.”
ARCCA uses the peer review process to “ensure the expert has covered all aspects of the loss and that the report is clear and reads well, along with making sure nothing was missed during the inspection phase. This last review is our quality control step,” stresses Clarksean.
The only reason to change a report after it’s been finalized, adds Clarksean, is if there is new data that was not considered when writing the original report. Documents are usually sent to clients in an Adobe Portable Document Format (pdf) to decrease the chances of their being edited or changed. And changing a report is unlikely to happen in ethical organizations without notifying the engineering manager and the author.
Kestner agrees, saying that Haag uses electronic signing and sealing so they can tell if a report has been modified after it has been signed and sealed.
Engineers are licensed by individual states and cannot sign a report for a state where they are not licensed. An engineer licensed in a different state can perform an inspection and help prepare a report, but the engineer of record who is responsible and signs a report must be licensed in that particular state.
If a report needs to be changed after it is filed, an addendum like the one added to the Ramey case can be added and what was changed or added must be clearly marked.
The process for commercial or multi-tenant buildings is much more complex. Jon Colatrella, CEM, CBCP, is a senior manager with Howard L. Zimmerman Architects, P.C., a full-service engineering and architectural firm in New York City. The company deals in high rise buildings and had many clients along the New York coastline.
Their investigations start with a larger team comprising mechanical and structural engineers and architects. An investigation can last days or weeks and their reports are extensive, covering all of the different disciplines. “Multiple people write the report,” he said. “There could be the actual engineers in the field who are doing their respective portions of the field report that are then reviewed internally by the department head of those disciplines and signed off by the principal of the firm. That’s how any of our projects usually go.”
The reports are then forwarded to the individual insurers. Sometimes the firm is hired to handle redesigns or corrective work. If other issues come to light as they handle those investigations and gather more information, the initial report is supplemented with that data.