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Mechanical and electrical engineering

At the Round Table with Engineering Expert, Don Parent

March 4, 2024

In this episode…  

Mr. Don Parent refers to a solid working relationship between expert and attorney as a “positive feedback loop,” noting that the inquisitive nature of attorneys and his own engineering background are complimentary forces. Experts who absorb some of the legal complexities can better intuit where questioning may lead, and answer accordingly. Similarly, attorneys can leverage a deeper understanding of the subject matter into a more comprehensive representation for clients.  

Check out the whole episode for our discussion on representing plaintiffs vs. defendants, scene graphics, and the role of neutrality. 

Episode Transcript:

Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Noah Bolmer, Round Table Group

Guest: Don Parent, Principal Consultant at Parent Technology Group, LLC

Noah Bolmer: Welcome to Discussions at the Round Table. I’m your host, Noah Bolmer. Today’s guest is Donald Parent, the owner of Parent Technology Group, which specializes in the design and manufacture of electrical products and automated processing machines. He’s a licensed professional engineer, an experienced expert witness with over 3 decades of experience, and over two dozen US and international patents. Mr. Parent has a master’s in mechanical engineering from Stanford. Mr. Parent, thank you for joining me here today at the Round Table

Don Parent: Hello Noah, nice to be here with you,

Noah Bolmer: You have been a professional engineer for over 30 years. How did you get started and how did you first become an expert witness?

Don Parent: First, I confess that it’s approaching 40 years. My path to becoming an expert witness is circuitous and opportunistic. I didn’t start off going to college. What I did was I went to vocational school after high school, and I learned how to be a machinist. I worked in a machine shop, and I thought it would be interesting to go to college and be a mechanical engineer. The next thing I knew, I was in Boston going to college, and I have to say that I found my passion there during my first classes. I remember realizing in my first calculus classes that I could do this. It was amazing. I got into gear and did very well academically. I graduated summa com laude from Northeastern and was hired by Bell Labs, but I had applied to several graduate schools. Bell Labs decided they would pay me to go to grad school at Stanford, where my focus was Thermal Science, the study of heat transfer, fluid mechanics and dynamics, and things like that. One of the things required was to have a [breath] area, and because I was working at Bell Labs, I chose electrical engineering. I spent time in electrical engineering classes in power circuits and controls, computer hardware construction, and other things, which has been a net positive for me in being an expert witness. I worked at Bell Labs until AT&T divested itself of its Baby Bells, and my job was uncertain. Being from Maine originally, I decided to move back north. I went to work at GTE, where I designed components for automobiles. For example, I worked on the first heater system for the GM EV1 electric car. I was at GTE for a few years, and another opportunity emerged to be the Vice President of Engineering for a small entrepreneurial company in Portland, Maine. I took that job, and it was great because we worked on high-voltage devices or eliminating static from plastic parts. That was a great experience and a great opportunity. I worked there for seven years.

Another opportunity presented itself and I was hired at a startup company in southern Maine that designed and built equipment for making CDs. That company grew like a weed. We developed high-speed equipment for making CDs and DVDs that were sold in Japan, Europe, South America, and all over the world. That brought me into the world of high-speed automation, and vacuum systems controls, things that I loved. I did that for seven years and when that company was sold, I started my own company to take some of the CD and DVD-making processes we developed/ By the way, I have a couple of patents for the process of manufacturing DVDs. I’ve worked with Gillette on the packaging for the Mach 3 shaver. If you look at the original Mach 3 Shaver, which has a reflective insert in the package. Gillette did that because metalized things were all the rage at the time because of CDs. I worked with them on that, and I also worked on a piece of equipment to make metalized plastic cutlery. I developed the product and the machinery to make the product, which interfaces with injection molding machines, to make those things at a very high rate of speed. That led to “Hey, what do we do next with this?” One logical thing was cosmetic products. We sold six machines to a company in Europe. Three of them were installed in Italy and three in France. That company was sold, and I needed a job. I reached out to people I went to grad school with who were in the business. They bootstrapped me into the expert witness business and here I am talking to you today.

Noah Bolmer: You were looking to be an expert witness and decided this is something that you could do. You had expertise and could be an expert witness. How did your first call go? What did you learn? What surprised you and how has that changed throughout your career?

Don Parent: The first call was a door stamping press in Chicago. It was a big, heavy-duty machine stamping out steel doors. They were having a tremendous problem with failure. This was not a litigation case, but it would probably have turned into [one] if it wasn’t fixed. Why is this thing failing all the time? I was able to recommend a solution. I don’t know if it ever got implemented, but my point is that with a broad background, and depth in various areas, a mechanical engineering education can take you a long way and you can easily apply it to many things.

Noah Bolmer: How important is it that you not only have expertise, but that you continue to learn to keep up on that expertise? What does it mean to continue to be an expert?

Don Parent: Fundamentally, I am a believer in continuing education. One of the things the expert witness business does for a person, if you’re inquisitive in any way, especially as it relates to complex cases where you may have to interact with other engineers with other areas of specialization. You learn about what those other people do, oversee that work. follow their reasoning and train of thought. That in and of itself, if you want to be a student of what’s going on you can learn a lot about material science and engineering mechanics. There’s an opportunity to learn in just doing your job, but that’s not to negate the need for continuing education. Keep yourself current. Things are changing all the time, and you need to stay current.

Noah Bolmer: It’s an interesting point you bring up working with other expert witnesses. What is that team dynamic like? Do you work with them on all parts? In other words, do you collaborate on something like an expert report, or do you all have your individual areas with just minimal collaboration?

Don Parent: It’s all the above but let me describe what I like best. I work on fire, explosion, failure, and accidents in IP-related cases. You can categorize them separately, but they are often intertwined. For example, you could say a failure could result in an explosion or an explosion could cause a failure that could cause an accident. You can see how some of these things can go around and around. An accident can result in a fire. I work in all three, but I am not a fire investigator so I will work with the fire investigator. For example, I’ll work with an individual with specialized knowledge in fire engineering and who knows how to make combustion calculations and other things. That would be one example of an electrical engineer who specializes in an area I don’t know a lot about, but with my background in electrical engineering, I can talk the talk. Working with that individual, I can learn a lot more about their thinking and about how that all fits together with everything. It is collaborative. In any collaborative case, there’s the risk of excessive overlap and a risk of doubling up on things when you shouldn’t have to. Typically, I find one person who ends up in the lead in terms of coordinating the work that needs to get done, and because of the breadth aspect of what I’ve done, I tend to be the person who does that. I don’t mind doing that at all. \Another important area of specialization I want to emphasize is scene graphics, or case graphics that you might incorporate later in the case. That’s important for complex cases. Many of those have fires or explosions where the evidence is gone or destroyed, and we often depend upon the person who is doing the scene investigation to recreate the scene graphic. We find that once that is done, it becomes the focal point for our work. We all use that as if that is the evidence we have looked at because it’s a good reference point for all of us.

Noah Bolmer: That’s interesting point regarding the person or people who are doing scene graphics. Is the development of those graphics something that you collaborate on? Is that something that comes up frequently in a lot of the cases that you work on? I haven’t talked a lot about that yet.

Don Parent: That’s a great question. This one individual that I work with relatively frequently, has been doing this type of work for 20 years, maybe even longer. He knows the business, he knows scene reconstruction very well. He is part of the initial investigation almost every single time. He knows enough that he knows what he’s looking for, but we do work together in the technical areas that we need to analyze. I’ll give you an example. We once worked on a large commercial warehouse roof failure case where there was leaking. There needed to be some thermal analysis of the heat transfer that goes on at the joints between the relative pieces on the roof. He drew up the overall sight but in the area where we suspect that the issue occurred, he and I had to work closely together so that he properly represented the work that we had done and needed to analyze. Now here’s where it becomes advantageous. I didn’t mention this earlier, but one of the things we needed to do was to do a thermal finite element analysis of that joint, given the weather patterns that occurred over the period that led to the leaking. The graphics that he had developed were used as input into the finite element program, so it’s a time saver. It eliminates the need for a secondary person to create that kind of stuff. It’s part of the reconstruction of the building, but then later on, as you said earlier. Noah, those same graphics can then be used for testimony. It gets used at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.

Noah Bolmer: Besides the collaborative efforts between you, the experts, and the scene graphics, what is the collaboration like between you, your team, and the attorneys themselves? What makes a great team? What makes a great attorney expert witness relationship in general?

Don Parent: It’s nice to like to work with each other. That helps, but typically I have found that every attorney I’ve worked with, we immediately had a good working relationship. The reason for that is because number one, I find attorneys to be inquisitive, intelligent, and like to learn. Engineers are the same way, but we have complementary skill sets. I can learn about the law from an attorney and an attorney can learn about engineering from the engineering guy. I have found that what that does is create a positive feedback loop where we can learn from each other and we can move things forward.

Noah Bolmer: Let’s pivot to some of the more mechanical aspects of expert witnessing. Have you done a significant amount of work for both the plaintiff and the defendant sides?

Don Parent: I did look at that. I think it might be like 40 plaintiffs to 60 defense, Something like that.

Noah Bolmer: Would you say there’s any market difference between the two in terms of being an expert witness and writing reports?

Don Parent: I haven’t personally found any huge differences other than sometimes the defense side will withhold my report until they get the report from the plaintiff. This is all part of the legal machinations that go on behind the scenes, which I’m not necessarily privy to, but I know occurs. One different area is billing on the plaintiff side which can be a little complex.

Noah Bolmer: Oh? How so?

Don Parent: Frequently, what will happen, let me make sure I do this right. On the defense side, typically, if the insurance company is involved the attorneys will submit the bill to the insurance company. It goes through the insurance company system and takes a long time to process. That’s one thing that, and to be fair, I need to change what I said earlier, I have found that on the defense side, sometimes it takes longer to get paid because the insurance companies are involved. On the plaintiff side, the cash flow loop is shorter and so the cash comes in more quickly.

Noah Bolmer: That makes sense. When you’re on the stand or in a deposition, you’re in front of people who are peppering you with questions. Tell me a little bit about maintaining your demeanor, and how you approach things like levity. Do you throw the occasional joke in? How would you describe your demeanor in the face of potentially intense questioning, whether in front of a deposition or a jury trial?

Don Parent: The first time I was deposed as an expert witness, not a fact witness, but as an expert witness. It was in Los Angeles. It was a compact disc piracy case, and it was probably the first time I was experiencing a deposition. When I was getting cross-examined, the attorney was great and he was cordial, but I didn’t realize he was leading me down a path to ask a question I would have a difficult time answering. I did not expect that at all. I think I did okay with it. It’s all history now. It was a long time ago, but it taught me a lesson about the fact that it’s not fun and games here. Be serious and try to see how the flow of information is proceeding and typically when that type of thing occurs, I can see it coming. I know the areas of weakness they may be going after. To me, it’s come down to confidence in the work that you have done. If you feel like you’ve done good work and your work is objective, truthful, and solid, it’s not a big deal. It’s not contentious. It’s just about exchanging information. That’s all it is.

Noah Bolmer: Is there anything that you find attorneys can do to help prepare their expert witnesses for situations that can be on the tense side, especially for newer expert witnesses?

Don Parent: Going back to that first case, I was surprised that in some areas attorneys are not allowed to prepare their expert witnesses. I asked the attorney a few questions about how things would proceed and he told me that he couldn’t tell me, which I thought was interesting. I guess in other venues, it hasn’t been a problem, so it’s all the nuances of each locale I guess. In terms of how I can be prepared, I suppose that to be fair, that hasn’t happened.

Noah Bolmer: Maybe something that comes with experience. You become accustomed to those kinds of questions and you expect it, which can relax you.

Don Parent: One interesting experience was going through a voir dire. That happened one time and the unusual thing about it was it occurred during the height of COVID. It was on Zoom and everybody looked the same. Everybody was dressed like I am today, including the judge. Everybody was the same. The thing that was interesting about that was that it was difficult to remember who had which role at this time because I didn’t know any of these people so that was interesting. It went well. I prevailed. I was in and that’s it. The interesting thing I should say is one of the issues relative to the voir dire idea was that the case revolved around a free stock case that was linked to weather events. Again, we did a thermal finite element analysis on a brick and cement structure that had frozen. The other side’s contention was this person was the wrong person to be testifying because the person needs to be a meteorologist because it is linked to weather patterns because it got cold, it got warm, and all that, which is wrong because the issue is not about the weather. The weather is simply varying temperatures that you can download from the National Weather Service. What is at play is what happened in this breaking concrete structure that is solely a mechanical engineering problem. It was relatively easy to explain how I went about the work that I did, and how I used the data that I obtained from the National Weather Service. What is at play is what happened in this breaking concrete structure. That is solely a mechanical engineering problem. It was relatively easy to explain how I went about the work that I did. How I used the data that I obtained from the National Weather Service, why that data was accurate, and whatever else there was no problem and I prevailed at that one.

Noah Bolmer: Let’s talk a little about the role of expert witnesses. As you know, it is the job of the attorney to best represent their client, but it is the job of the expert witnesses to best represent the truth. Tell me a little about your understanding of neutrality and the importance of neutrality for expert witnesses.

Don Parent: It’s important. Let’s say you follow the evidence. You applied the science and you derive an answer from that in the best possible way you can. From that, you get a conclusion. And I have found that I don’t think there has been a single time when I have been pressured to provide a response that would be more advantageous to the case. Typically, it is what it is and we go from there.

Noah Bolmer: It’s not a problem to worry about. Is this answer going to help my case or not? It’s just answer truthfully and move on. Is that about right?

Don Parent: That is it. There’s no other way to do it. You only have one reputation. You might as well do the best job you can. You know what you’re being paid to do so, do it right.

Noah Bolmer: Before we wrap up, do you have any last advice for expert witnesses in particular or attorneys working with experts?

Don Parent: First, I think you try to structure your time and workflow in your office from the beginning. Maybe because I came from a manufacturing background, I set up a job management system partly because I developed a solar fabric device for the U.S. Army. As part of doing that, I had to have my accounting system comport with what would be satisfactory to the U.S. government. I had to hire an accountant to come in and set up my accounting system, which is job-based accounting. What I typically do is I assign the case a job number and the outcome of that is I charge my time and all expenses for that job, and all income is credited to that job. The benefit there is I know how much money is made, and the profitability of each job at the end of the day. The filing system is based upon that same numbering sequence. That’s the system. I have a database through which I enter all the time and the activities that I do using that job numbering system. The last thing I would say is to go paperless if you can. It will make your life easier from a filing perspective.

Noah Bolmer: That’s sage advice, Mr. Parent, thank you for joining me here today.

Don Parent: You’re welcome. Thanks for the invitation.

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After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.

At the Round Table with Engineering Expert, Don Parent

Donald Parent, Principal Consultant, Parent Technology Expert

Don Parent is the founder of Parent Technology Group, LLC, a mechanical and electrical engineering consulting and expert witness firm. He is a Licensed Professional Engineer with over thirty years of experience and has been awarded over two dozen US and International patents. Mr. Parent holds a master's in mechanical engineering from Stanford.