Crash Reconstruction and Forensic Engineering Insights with Torrey Roberts
David Smith 00:00
All right. Welcome to the Expert Witness Podcast. I’m happy to introduce today’s guest, Torrey Roberts. Torrey is the Principal Engineer and Founder of Roberts Forensics. His primary focus is on crash reconstruction, and his 15 years of experience have investigated and reconstructed over 400 crashes. Torrey, thanks for being here today. I’m happy to have you.
Torrey Roberts 00:27
Thank you. You’re welcome.
David Smith 00:31
All right. So one of the first questions I always like to ask is, how did you get introduced to this type of work?
Torrey Roberts 00:38
I have an interesting story. I’ve been doing forensic engineering crash reconstruction since 2001. I went to university at Boise State, and I was a freshman. I had applied for an internship with a guy in Boise who was a civil engineer and did forensic engineering, but he was kind of doing like some civil structural stuff, including crash reconstruction. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into, but I applied, interviewed, and thought it went well. However, I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I started working at an exotic car dealership in town as a “lot boy,” where I handled tasks like washing cars, keeping the lot organized, and managing keys. I was also a car enthusiast.
One day, while taking one of their cars to an upholstery shop, I got into an accident with a fairly nice, older vintage car. This accident made me realize that I might not have a job at the dealership anymore, so I decided to reach out to the engineering firm where I had interviewed, persistently following up with them. Eventually, they hired me, probably to get me to stop bothering them. So, my entry into crash reconstruction came about because I got into a crash myself. That’s the story.
I worked for that engineering firm for about five years while attending school, which was a great part-time job that taught me a lot. I initially pursued a degree in mechanical engineering, but I was exposed to civil engineering work. I then worked as an EIT (Engineer-in-Training) in structural engineering for a couple of years before returning to forensics, again with the same company. However, things didn’t work out in the long run, but I still wanted to pursue crash reconstruction more specifically. I was even willing to relocate from Boise, as it’s not a big city and there’s always a high demand for work in this field. To stay busy here, you really need to establish a national reputation.
So, I accepted a job in St. Louis, working for a larger forensic engineering firm specializing in crash reconstruction. I worked there for about seven years before relocating back to Boise and starting my own firm. That’s my background.
David Smith 04:00
Yeah, that’s cool. Getting into it while you were in school. I find that most people have no idea what it even is while they’re in school. It’s not usually something they talk about much.
Torrey Roberts 04:12
Yeah, it was a great experience because at a young age, he was a testifying expert. I got a lot of really good observational work and helped him with various tasks like preparing for depositions and other things. I even had the opportunity to witness him testify a few times. So I felt like I had a good understanding of the industry and how everything works at an early stage.
David Smith 04:38
That’s great. It’s good to have someone like that who can introduce you and bring you along. You were really fortunate. So when you came back to Boise and started your own company, were there any barriers or obstacles you had to overcome when starting this business? Did cases come slowly, or were you in high demand from day one?
Torrey Roberts 05:05
The barriers and obstacles are just making the investment in yourself. To do it for me, I mean, it was taking a golf and buying all the equipment and the software and just betting that, hey, I think I have a really good reputation in the industry. I think I’ve been very credible. I know there’s clients that will want to use me, and just the work sort of slowly came in. You know, that first year was mediocre, but then it’s been a pretty good growth line since then. And I haven’t done a ton of marketing. I’d say my marketing is just sort of tied up in the case work that I do. And that is doing a great job. And then trying to go get FaceTime with the client instead of a phone call. If they’re around, you go to their office. You know, that especially has been good for local work.
David Smith 06:04
Yeah, that’s a great idea.
Torrey Roberts 06:06
It was a bit of a slow burn. But then as you know, once the POS is on, it’s coming in.
David Smith 06:13
Yeah, absolutely. So, for the people that aren’t familiar with accident reconstruction or crash reconstruction, can you tell us a little bit about the types of cases that you commonly work on? What does that look like? What type of work are you doing and what situations call for your expertise?
Torrey Roberts 06:33
Yeah, so we’re typically involved in cases where there’s been a lot of, in our cases, there’s been a fatality, that kind of thing. So they’re usually pretty bad crashes, pretty big accidents. We will get retained sometimes in the days after, or the day of and have to go to industry tournament dropping, you know, response on it and get out to the scene right away is basically what they’re looking for, because they want that early collection of evidence. And then sometimes you’re retained years later, and nobody anticipated it would be a big, you know, case that gets wrapped up in the legal system. And now they need an expert, and they’ve got 30 to 60 days to disclose whatever. And you’ve got what you have to work with. So it kind of runs that way. We do quite a bit of specialize more in accidents involving heavy trucks, tractor-trailers, that kind of thing, as well as motorcycles. So that’s probably most of the cases that I did. I still do some vehicle-to-vehicle work and some pedestrian accidents, but mostly tractor-trailers.
David Smith 07:59
So this is, I don’t know if you heard about this, this was probably five or 10 years ago, I was on my way to Idaho from Utah. And we were driving up by 15. And we were noticing that the other side of the freeway going southbound was just stopped for four or five miles, like there were people barbecuing, throwing the football like it was not moving slowly, it was dead stopped. And so my wife and I were curious, and she was looking it up on her phone as I was driving. Apparently, a trailer that had a bunch of cows in it came off this overpass or came off the freeway exit and turned left to go back over the freeway. And it was going too fast and tipped over. And several cows fell out onto the freeway below onto a couple of cars. And so they had to like stop everything and rent a backhoe and bring it out. Yeah, the cows didn’t get up.
Torrey Roberts 09:09
They weren’t self-sufficient at that point.
David Smith 09:11
Yeah, I mean, is that like the type of case that you would work on, something like that? Or most?
Torrey Roberts 09:17
Yeah, yeah, that could definitely be something crazy like that. I mean, it’s stuff that you’re just, sometimes you look at it, you’re like, how did this even happen? Or this would be the case, like, in one sense, you’re like, Oh, I’ve done this type of case before, and in another sense, they always have some nuance to them that just sort of surprises you. It’s always something unique, you know.
David Smith 09:43
Yeah, there is a large element of that in this type of work.
Torrey Roberts 09:47
Yeah, that’s so true.
David Smith 09:51
All right. So I guess the next question. With doing accident reconstruction, you said that a lot of these cases, you’re almost a phone call, they’ll call you right away. So are most of your cases local, regional? Or do you work nationwide? Or how does that work for you?
Torrey Roberts 10:08
I mean, probably 50% or more at this point are local to Idaho, I would say Idaho, Montana, Utah, Eastern Oregon, Washington, kind of that region. I still get called on cases to go kind of all over the West. So New Mexico’s always popular, and then I’ll do some work in the Midwest. I’ve got a couple of clients that will basically send me all over the place. And so it’s still a bit of a mix. But I really like growing the business as close to my office as I can, at this point. In my work absolutely, as the business grows, and you have more people, it’s like you got to spread out more and do more in different areas. And that’s completely okay, too. But the older I get, the more I want to be within like a four-hour drive. You know, barely go out and maybe get back the same night.
David Smith 11:14
Yeah, no, I get that. All right. So, what is it about expert witness work that you really enjoy? Like, why do you do this type of work?
Torrey Roberts 11:28
I think that my favorite part of it is just getting, like, a deep dive into figuring it out, into that challenge, just when you can have those days where you’re just gonna dive into this case and figure out what happened. And this is after you’ve gone out and done all the legwork, all the data collection, you have everything back. And now you’re analyzing the case. Those are my favorite days because I almost just get lost in it. I’ll start it early in the morning, and then it’s seven o’clock at night, and I gotta wrap this up. But I’m still so obsessed with what’s going on and really just checking off every single variable that you can. And that kind of stuff, I feel like, is just one of those things that, I don’t know, as an adult, there’s too many things that you get to just lose your day in. And that’s really my favorite part of it, you know?
David Smith 12:23
Yeah, absolutely. When you get into that flow state, I was writing a book on flow the other day, and I talked about that when you’re just in the zone, and you’re working on something that you like, and you’re competent and working on solving the problem, that’s it really is enjoyable. I agree with that.
Torrey Roberts 12:41
Yeah, and it’s very rewarding when you get through it and you look at it, and you say, on the onset, I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know any of this or piece of evidence together, started running your calculations, maybe doing some simulation, stuff like that. And when you look at it, you figure out and you have that, like, I feel very, very sure that this is how this happened because I’ve checked every other possibility. I’ve looked at everything that I can, and I feel like I have sufficient evidence to come to that conclusion. And it’s kind of a, you know, it’s science, but it’s kind of that feeling of creation to it almost, you know?
David Smith 13:24
Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that. Yeah, that’s great. All right. So have you ever been reviewing information for a case and found out that you’re definitely on the wrong side of the case? And if you have, what do you do in those situations?
Torrey Roberts 13:44
I mean, that’s something that I hope is happening because if you don’t find out you’re on the wrong side, you know, you’re not looking at all possibilities. Because there’s always gonna be cases that come in that you’re gonna be on the wrong side. And I always kind of look at it, like, my analogy is, it’s my job to give the weather forecast, and it’s my client’s job to decide how they want to dress. And, yeah, that’s how I look at it. So there’s gonna be cases where you come back and say, Hey, there’s a lot of bad news here, and you need to know about it upfront before we keep going. And I feel like that long-term credibility in this industry is such a big deal. And I think you’re gonna just have a really good reputation. And most clients really appreciate knowing upfront what the issues are and what they aren’t so that they can decide how they want to dress, so to speak.
David Smith 14:43
Yeah, I’ve had the same experiences. I find most attorneys, they’re disappointed to get that sort of news that, you know, they don’t really have a case, but they’re very happy to get it. You know, they’d rather get it early on before they’ve spent a whole bunch of time and money. Do you know, and that allows them to make the best decisions for their clients?
Torrey Roberts 15:05
Well, yeah, I think with that, it comes with, you know, being very thorough. And when you’re expressing those things to them that aren’t good news, you really have a good outlay of, here’s what it is, here’s why, here’s everything I’ve done, everything I’ve looked at, look at this from all angles, and, you know, yep, then they really trust and respect your work, and they’re going to come to you again. So.
David Smith 15:27
Yeah, absolutely. Very good. All right. So this is always a fun question. So depositions and trials are often thought of as serious and well-planned-out events. And sometimes they are, but not always. So have you ever had a particularly lighthearted or funny interaction that happened during a trial or a deposition?
Torrey Roberts 15:57
Yeah, I do. I have a pretty good one that I always remember. I was in Springfield, Illinois. And it was such an interesting thing because sometimes just statute of limitations, but there were some younger individuals involved in this particular accident. So it ran pretty long. I was in St. Louis for about six years. And then I was actually in Denver for a year and a half or so. But this was one of the first cases that I got in St. Louis. And I’ve worked it up, and then this thing just sat forever, sat forever. Literally, the month I moved, you know, is the trial for this particular case. So it’s like, I think it was like the second case I ever got. And the last one, the last things I did before I moved to go testify in the trial, my house was literally in boxes, you know. And so we go and testify. And I really enjoyed working with this particular client. You know, they just, like we kind of had a good rapport with each other and stuff. And we’ve had a couple other testifying cases. And so he comes out of the courtroom, they get me to testify. And there’s like a three-year-old kid sitting by the door, and he just leaves that door open and just sends that kid just hits him routinely. So I’m coming in to sit down, getting sworn in, and you just hear in the background, just this wailing. That’s always, you know, just a funny, what a way to start off your testimony. Oh, man. Yeah. And then I have another one. It was a deposition, actually. And depositions are always kind of a chance and stuff. And I hadn’t had, I mean, I just don’t say like, basically, like the week before, like four days later, that weekend, I had had a vasectomy. And I couldn’t sit because I just was in pain. And so I tried to stay and sat down for the first like 30 minutes, and I couldn’t. So I stood up. And I started answering the questions that way. And the Depo went from like barely friendly to very combative very quickly, because they’re like, why is this guy standing up? So why don’t we take a break? And I explained the whole situation to him, and he’s like, Oh, no problem. And you know, that myself while ago? kind of stick out.
David Smith 18:37
Yeah, fun stuff. All right. So if you were going to give someone who had just been retained on their first case, one piece of advice, what would it be?
Torrey Roberts 18:52
Oh, yeah, I would say the best thing that you can do is, number one, make sure you’re knowledgeable on the subject already taken the case, don’t take in something that you just don’t have the expertise to be doing, or at least some comfort level that you know, you feel qualified to be an expert. But beyond that, just come in as a blank slate. As far as opinions on what happened, you know, you’re gonna hear from your client, you might read a police report, you might have all these initial thoughts on it. But really try to brush those aside until you get to look at the evidence yourself. And you get to like, really piece this together because so many times, things aren’t always, you know, what they seem on the onset, and that people have just given this case or whatever, a glance and a look and look at it and make these assumptions or correlations that just don’t exist. You can find yourself going down a path that just isn’t going to end up being correct or wasting a lot of time on things that aren’t real.
David Smith 19:57
Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that I found, like you said, is that in almost every case, everybody wants to know what happened, right? Like, why did this person get hurt? Or why did this car crash? Or why did this thing break? What really happened? Have you ever had one where you just can’t figure it out? Or where everybody, the police report, you know, everyone had this idea of what happened, but it turned out to be something totally different?
Torrey Roberts 20:38
Yeah, there are always your obscure cases where people look at it, make assumptions, and have this conclusion. And if you’re looking at something and you just keep telling yourself, it doesn’t make sense, it’s not adding up, it doesn’t make sense. And I think that’s when you have to just wipe the slate clean and reset and try to come back to it. I’ve been working on one throughout this week that nothing added up coming into it, until I did like a total reset on it and started over. And then I did come up with a solution that matches all the evidence, and everything aligns. But it wasn’t at all the obvious situation, you know. I’m sure you’ve had those cases where you are just kind of banging your head against your desk. And it’s usually because you have some assumption or something in your head that’s like, oh, it’s like this one I looked at here before, except then you look at it, you’re like, well, this piece isn’t adding up, and this piece isn’t adding up, and this piece isn’t adding up. You know? Yeah. Start over.
David Smith 21:43
Yeah, I remember one case I did. I was working when I was fairly new. And I was actually working for the expert, right. So I was kind of the lead associate, if you will. And, you know, he’d gone out and done the inspection. And they all had this idea of, they were trying to put a scissor lift up on a trailer, and it had fallen off and hit somebody. And there was a bolt that was bent in just a really weird way. And I’d gone through and I’d written the report off kind of the way that he had thought that might have happened. And it just, it just didn’t add up. And so we went back and tried to figure out, okay, and turns out that, you know, one of the ramps wasn’t even bolted on, and the one that, one of the ramps had actually fallen off. And they thought that the twisted bolt would have been like twisted out as it fell. It turns out, the twisted bolt was in the ramp that stayed on. And we were able to recreate that and show the bending pattern. And it turned out really good. But, man, I had the same experience, like had almost a whole report written down just like this doesn’t add up.
Torrey Roberts 22:57
And it’s even harder, I think, when you have multiple experts on a project. Momentum is pushing in this direction. And you’re the guy that’s like, Well, wait a minute, this is not adding up. This doesn’t make sense. Here’s why I think we need to look at this again and figure it out. And then the other thing too is like as mechanical engineers, the stuff that we look at, it can be dynamic, right? So pulling yourself back, and I see this in car crashes all the time, where it’s like, you have your evidence, you look at everything. But sometimes there’s things like just like pieces that don’t add up. And until you actually go in and take the steps to maybe simulate it or really understand the dynamics of how those vehicles are moving, it just won’t make sense. And you’re gonna miss something every single time, you know, like whether I ended up using a simulator for everything or not, I always usually do something with it because it just helps you understand some of those dynamics, you know?
David Smith 23:51
Absolutely. No, that’s great. I like that. I like that. It’s not making sense, wipe the slate clean. That’s good, good advice. All right. So, what do you find makes a good expert witness or helps the expert be persuasive?
Torrey Roberts 24:10
I think that for the persuasive part, the first thing is credibility. When you come in, you have a marked bias, usually coming into our system because you are retained by a side and compensated by a side. So you really have to show that you’ve considered all the possibilities, looked at everything, and genuinely considered the evidence. Beyond that, I think you have to be an effective communicator. You can’t assume that your audience consists of 12 engineers who will understand everything you say. You have to realize that sometimes your window to testify and capture their attention is fairly short. I always aim to set things up as a teaching opportunity while testifying. I try to explain complex concepts in simplified ways so that people understand. If you can get people to conceptually understand what you’re talking about, you’ll have much better results than if you’re just delivering a technical sermon. Effective communication is the hardest part of this job for me, but it’s also the one thing that continually improves with time.
David Smith 25:58
Absolutely. Do you ever practice your communication? I sometimes come home and try to explain something to my wife and watch her eyes glaze over like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, David.”
Torrey Roberts 26:14
I do practice sometimes. I’ll ask people to play the role of a jury and explain what I’m looking at or thinking without giving them any background on it. I want to get their initial reaction to see if they understand and what they think. It’s a 50/50 situation. Sometimes I get that blank look, and I realize I didn’t start explaining it the right way, and then I have to figure out how to explain it better.
David Smith 26:53
Yeah, absolutely. That’s so important. Many engineers go into the field because they prefer technical work over language skills. However, in our profession, writing, speaking, and explaining are essential skills. It’s a significant part of what we do.
Torrey Roberts 27:19
Like, that’s never sit on your report, and you just go, “How do I say this? What’s the best way?” and you try to write a paragraph and look at it. And then you’re like, “Okay, rephrase it this way,” or what order? You know, because there’s so many nuances and all these cases, so much evidence, and you could present it so specific way, just trying to figure out, like, what’s the best way to present all this so that my client understands, you know, not just my client, but the jury, anybody reading the report really has a good understanding of it. Yeah, that’s hard. That’s hard, because you have to almost pull yourself out of being an engineer for a minute.
David Smith 27:55
Absolutely, yeah, I’ve there’s some reports that I’ve rearranged five or six times trying to make it flow and let it go. I can’t talk about this yet because I haven’t talked about this other piece that needs to come first. And some of it’s a little circular sometimes that you got to make sure it’s organized really well. It’s almost like putting together a sales presentation in some respect. You have to build the base at the bottom and then add the details in as you go.
Torrey Roberts 28:26
Yeah, you gotta start from the foundation. Yeah, absolutely.
David Smith 28:33
All right. So I find that most experts would like to be involved in more cases. What have you found to be the most effective marketing technique or the best way to get new cases in your business?
Torrey Roberts 28:46
I mean, first and foremost, it’s your reputation, the quality of your work, how you handle your cases, and how you communicate with your clients. Good communication is crucial in this field, keeping them up to date, letting them know what you’re finding and where you’re at. The problem is, as we both know, when you get really busy, that can become challenging when you’re managing a lot of cases. Our client base tends to communicate with each other a lot, and many new clients come through referrals from existing clients. Meeting with clients in person, hand-delivering your report, having face-to-face interactions, or if necessary, having a call, can make a significant difference. Building that personal connection and rapport goes a long way. I believe the more face time you get, the better they understand you. While having a good website and a presence on LinkedIn are essential, nothing compares to doing excellent work, effective communication, and creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions.
David Smith 30:09
Yeah, so it’s all about being memorable, building real relationships, and having that personal touch. Zoom meetings are convenient, but they don’t quite replace the feeling of sitting in a room together.
Torrey Roberts 30:27
No, you’re absolutely right. There’s something to be said for in-person interactions, especially now when Zoom is so common.
David Smith 30:37
Alright. So in your business, do you do any engineering work outside of the forensic work, or are you solely focused on being a forensic expert witness?
Torrey Roberts 30:51
We primarily focus on forensic work. We don’t engage in any design work, and if we do any type of design, it’s usually related to testing or something associated with a forensic case. So, yeah, we’re mainly centered on that.
David Smith 31:13
Okay. And I guess, how has that, I mean, you said that you did some design work early on in your career. How has shifting into the expert work affected your life and your business?
Torrey Roberts 31:29
Oh, I think I actually really enjoyed doing design work when I did it. But I also felt that it was very repetitive, at least in the area of design I was in. With expert work, I feel like you’re always learning and growing. There’s always something new to delve into, and you can spend 24 hours a day, for the rest of your life, learning something related to expert work. Especially in the field of crash reconstruction, with the rapid changes in vehicle technology and electronics, there’s a constant stream of new information. It’s much more dynamic and broad compared to the design work I was doing. Additionally, becoming a better communicator through expert work has had a positive impact on all aspects of my life, not just professionally.
David Smith 32:50
This has been great. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. We’ve met before and had lunch, and it’s always good to chat with you. So the last question is, for attorneys listening to this who may want to hire you for a case, how can they find you?
Torrey Roberts 33:10
Absolutely, everything they need can be found on my website, which is RobertsForensic.com. I also have a LinkedIn page for myself and my business, where they can find all the contact information and details they need. That’s probably the easiest and most common way to reach out to me.
David Smith 33:30
Alright. Well, very good. Thank you so much, Torrey, for being here. I appreciate your insights and your comments, and I wish you all the best of luck in your business.
Torrey Roberts 33:39
Yeah, thank you. I really appreciate you having me. I enjoyed talking to you.
Visit https://robertsforensic.com/ for insights on accident reconstruction and forensic engineering for legal, insurance, and corporate needs.
Explore https://alpineeng.com/accident-investigation-expert-witness/ for expert support in litigation related to mechanical engineering accident reconstruction, defect identification, system safety analysis, and more to bolster legal cases involving accidents related to machinery and equipment.
You can connect with Torrey on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/torrey-roberts-a999619/