Thursday, August 22, 2013

What to Expect on a Site Visit

Now that you have decided a site visit is an essential opportunity to provide insight into the case, not to mention potentially helpful in forming and supporting your expert opinions, what happens next?   Can you just stroll down to the scene of the accident, the property in need of appraisal, or the former chemical manufacturing site? No, it’s not that easy.  Inform your client about the need for a site visit and your availability over the next few months, and do so early: negotiating a site visit can take a long time, especially if it is at a currently operating facility, regardless of which side has retained you.

Be Prepared

Preparation is paramount for a successful site visit. Review the case materials in advance to get a feel for the site layout and the key features you are interested in seeing, and the questions that you anticipate getting answers to in order to maximize your information gathering when on location. This holds true regardless of whether you are visiting an abandoned or currently-operating facility, a residential or commercial property or the scene of an accident. Ask your client about any conditions or limitations governing the visit. For example, will you need steel-toe boots, or will they be supplied; can you take your own photos or will a professional photographer be along; will the visit require a safety briefing; will the property owner be present and available for an interview?

Know the Participants

Once the site visit is arranged ask your client in advance who the participants will be. It might be just you with your camera and your attorney, or other experts retained by the same side might be present, or it might also include the opposing attorney, the opposing expert(s), and company representatives. Depending on how the site visit is negotiated you may be free to roam and take pictures, or you may be on a scheduled tour guided by a facility representative. If the attorneys from both sides are present, they may act friendly with each other and joke around, but it is not a social event. As the expert, you should be courteous as you would in any other professional setting. And, be careful of what you say in the presence of opposing counsel, other experts and facility personnel. A site visit with both parties in attendance gives everyone an opportunity to size up the other side.  They will be watching to see what site features interest you and when you document things. And, you will likely be doing the same of them.

Notes and Photographs

During a site visit it is important to document your observations through notes and photographs as this is your one opportunity to gather this type of information relevant to your opinions. Remember that any notes and photos that you take are likely discoverable if you are a testifying expert. When you return to your office, type up any notes and label your photos while the visit is still fresh. Ultimately, you may include your findings in an appendix to your expert report, or embed photographs directly into the body of your report.

A Last Tip

Regardless of the type of site visit, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the representatives on-site: What is that piece of equipment? Where are we on the map? I would like to see this feature – can you show it to me?  They can always say no.  An example:  on one field trip to a large manufacturing facility, one of the experts walked with the attorney for the opposing side; and developed a conversation with him.  After a while the attorney loosened up and allowed a greater range of Q&A.

Bottom line, you are there to understand and investigate.  Be assertive.  It will probably be your only opportunity to get the lay of the land directly.  Take full advantage of the opportunity.

Submitted by Wendy N. Pearson, President

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