Canadian Consulting Engineer

Expert Witness

June 1, 2007
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

In April, Consulting Engineers of Manitoba presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Alfred John Poetker, P.Eng.

In April, Consulting Engineers of Manitoba presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Alfred John Poetker, P.Eng.

Poetker launched his practice in 1978. After it was purchased by Cochrane Engineering in 1990, he became that company’s president. Cochrane has since been bought by Genivar.

Among his long and varied list of achievements — professional and humanitarian — Poetker has been a special advisor to the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission, served as president of Consulting Engineers of Manitoba, and recently helped to negotiate the dispute between the provinces engineers and architects.

He has also been an expert witness in over 50 legal cases. Canadian Consulting Engineer asked him about that particular aspect of his work.

Q. What kind of cases were you involved in?

The first time I got involved as an expert witness was more than 20 years ago. We had a client who was a housing developer and he had a contract dispute with a contractor who built a road.

“The problem was that the units went way beyond the estimates. The engineer was in the courtroom and they asked me, ‘Do you I think the engineer was negligent?’ I said, ‘Yes. If the engineer’s specification calls for 3* of asphalt, and if the asphalt ends up 4 1/2* thick, somebody’s not watching. And I think there’s a duty of care to do that. That’s my opinion.’

“Some of my cases were contract issues like that. Mostly they were related to drainage. Usually somebody, like a farmer, was flooded by heavy rains. He lost crops so he made a claim against the municipality. Most of the municipalities are insured here by a single agent, and so that agent, or the adjuster, was the one who typically hired me.

“I always made it plain to the adjuster that I would call it the way I saw it. It was not an issue of who paid me. But a cross-examining lawyer will try lots of things. They would occasionally suggest that I was just saying what my client wanted me to say.”

Q. Did you find it a good experience?

“I did. I often took the approach that people want to solve the fundamental problem that gave rise to the claim in the first place and not just get a remedy for the claim. I wrote my reports that way. If they would do this or that, then here’s an approach to solving the problem.

“That’s why many of the cases were settled before they got to trial — sometimes just before a trial. I would suggest that if the defendant, for example, were to do this or this, say, repair the road, then the plaintiff would not have the problem going forward. Maybe that could be a point of settlement as opposed to paying a lot of money for the damage that occurred in the past and paying for more damage that would occur next year when there would be more flooding.

“The lawyer might say, ‘The plaintiff is starting to fix the problem so they’re admitting guilt.’ And I would say, ‘Well if you challenge them in that adversarial way they’ll stop fixing the problem. Is that really what you want for your client?’

“To be cross examined is quite intimidating. But I’ve coached some of the people here [at the company] when they’ve gone into court. I tell them, ‘Remember, the reason you’re there is that you know something they don’t. You are the expert. The cross-examining lawyer will give you the impression that he knows the answers to the questions he’s asking, but that’s not necessarily the case.’

“My approach also was always to listen very carefully and not to get agitated in terms of my responses, to try and stay calm. It’s a bit of a discipline. It’s not easy to do all the time.”


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