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A Cautionary Tale: Quality Systems Matter for Legal Testing

I’ve got a lot of war stories, so to speak, from my time serving as an expert witness in over 100 cases spread across the United States and even internationally. This story I’m about to tell is a cautionary tale with key teaching points for those involved in legal matters requiring chemical analysis or physical testing.

Several years ago, I participated in a joint inspection as part of a lawsuit related to a workplace injury that was grotesque and significantly life-altering. While I can’t reveal many details, I can say that there was question about the structural stability and strength of materials involved in the situation, which ultimately resulted in an extensive injury.

I arrived at the testing lab that had been selected by the plaintiff in the lawsuit and I was immediately horrified by the condition of the lab. You may think I’m being dramatic—I assure you I am not. It was a university lab and the instrumentation had not been calibrated since the lab was established, over a decade prior. That means, in the most basic sense, there was no assurance that the instrument would perform as expected and therefore reliable data sets were not possible to obtain. They had also rigged up other instrumentation, not suitable for the testing, and were trying to argue that it was sufficient.

This is a true but extreme example. In my decades of experience that lab was by far the most unacceptable. It may have been a convenient location for some but should have never been selected. In a litigated matter the goal of laboratory analysis is to provide reliable and relevant data sets to reveal critical information that can be used to help parties make highly significant decisions. In the absence of a robust quality system this simply is not possible. That day we refused to proceed with testing—which was not a pleasing decision to many of the involved parties (mainly the plaintiff) but it was absolutely the right decision.

In the absence of a quality system questionable data is bred—sometimes it is downright faulty data too. It is a major fallacy to think that accreditations are only necessary if a governing body, like the FDA, makes them a requirement.  Without a quality system there are no checks and balances, no way to verify systems are effective, and no process to document that you say what you do—and do what you say. A quality system is foundationally critical to producing reliable data sets within a lab.

When it comes to selecting a testing lab as a host for a joint inspection there is a wide range of professionalism both in terms of the infrastructure and the hospitality associated with hosting such a critical event. My advice to all parties is to first do your homework. Request quality credentials and even consider doing a paper audit prior to coming on site. You could also request photos from within the labs, to get a sense for how modern (or not modern) the equipment and facilities are.  Also, thanks to our highly digital world you can check out their website and specifically look for areas that discuss accreditations.

As part of my experience as an expert witness, and after going to subpar labs such as the one mentioned in this narrative, I determined that creating a laboratory space specifically designed for litigated matters within Polymer Solutions meets a critical need. It is exactly what I did. Not only are we FDA Registered and ISO 17025 accredited, our facility is designed to be an open, clean, and hospitable space.

I hope this horror story from my experience as an expert witness serves to better advance your future litigated matters involving laboratory testing. The selection of a joint inspection facility is a major decision to make and one that should not be made hastily or without due diligence. When making the selection for your next joint inspection site remember this: The credibility of critical data sets and the reliability of results hang in the balance.