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Chemist in the Courtroom

Robert D. Athey, Jr.

Scientist-Detective and Scientist-Teacher

When a lawsuit cannot be so quickly resolved, the expert may serve by instructing a lawyer in the case about the science involved—giving advice, primarily, on whether the scientific advice the lawyer wishes to present has merit. Sometimes getting to the science in the case takes a great deal of investigation.

I once found myself involved in a case in San Jose, California, where a fire had destroyed an apartment house, and the local natural-gas company was being blamed. It was alleged that a rubber diaphragm in a valve controlling the gas supply to the house had failed. I supplied engineers with tensile-test equipment and helped with strength testing. Valves of the type in question failed only at extreme high pressures and did so leaving ragged tears in the diaphragm. The suspect diaphragm did not perform differently on any of the engineers' strength tests.

But on a visit to their offices a week before my deposition, I looked again at the hundred-plus photographs from the stress tests and spotted three that seemed different. Instead of ragged tears, they showed sharp cuts—probably, I surmised, a razor cut partway through the fabric that had happened when the fabric was laminated or die-cut. Razor slices are notoriously hard to see unless you stretch the substrate, and so it would be unlikely that these would be detected during assembly of the valves.

The engineers blew up the photos 20 times, exposing the damage to the fibers and evidence of the age of the cut. At the deposition eight lawyers posed questions for 10 to 12 hours; in the end the photographic evidence of the razor cuts was definitive, and the case was settled for a fraction of the amount sought.

But a lot of the work of a scientist involved in the legal process is pure education. As a coating chemist I often rely on kitchen analogies to describe polymeric or colloidal systems, relating a polymer to a plate of spaghetti, a monomer to a plate of macaroni and colloidal systems to milk, pudding, gelatin and gravy. This sort of background understanding is important to an attorney preparing for a courtroom apppearance, who must frame a set of questions to ask in the courtroom so the judge (and jury, if needed) can get the same training painlessly, but thoroughly enough to be able to make decisions about the importance to the case argument.

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