Let’s Talk About the Role of a Coating Inspector During a Failure Investigation

KTA’s Certified Coating Inspector Forum  Volume 2, Issue No. 10 – October 2023 

William Corbett, COO 

AMPP Senior Certified Coating Inspector & Certified Protective Coating Specialist 

KTA’s Certified Coating Inspector Forum is designed to provide professional development/continuing education on standards, inspection practices, new instruments, and other topics to help keep certified AMPP and FROSIO coating inspectors current. It represents the views of the author and KTA-Tator, Inc. It may or may not represent the views of AMPP: The Association for Materials Protection & Performance, even though SSPC, NACE, and AMPP standards are frequently referenced in the content. 


Let’s face it… the primary reason for Quality Assurance and Quality Control inspection is to catch work that deviates from the specification before it becomes a non-conformity or even worse, that leads to premature coating breakdown/failure. So why are we focusing on the role of a coating inspector during a failure investigation? Theoretically the inspector should never have to fill that role, but there may be instances where the inspector does become involved or must provide testimony if the issue proceeds to dispute resolution (e.g., mediation, arbitration, litigation). The fact is that coating failures can and do occur despite the presence of a qualified and certified coating inspector because many aspects of the project are outside of the inspector’s purview (e.g., design, coating system selection, specification development, raw material/coating manufacturing, etc.). Further, the inspector does not actually prepare the surfaces and apply the coatings, but only witnesses the work done by others. This issue of the Certified Coating Inspector Forum focuses on the role of the inspector when a coating failure occurs on a project they inspected, which may ultimately escalate to a dispute resolution process. 

The Role of the Coatings Inspector in Failure Avoidance 

Let’s start by establishing the role of a coating inspector in failure avoidance, so that we can better understand their role in a failure.  

The opportunity for premature coating failure is greatly reduced when a properly trained and equipped coatings inspector verifies that each step in the surface preparation and coating/lining installation process meets the requirements of the project specification. A knowledgeable inspector identifies deviations (from specification) as they occur, not after the fact. They communicate these deviations before additional work progresses, and work with the contractor to bring the deviations into conformance with the specification. If deviations become nonconformities (because they weren’t corrected), the inspector initiates a nonconformance report (NCR), which includes a root cause analysis, means of preventing future occurrences, and remediation processes as applicable.  

Specific points where the quality of the work (relative to the project specification requirements) is verified prior to work progressing are known as ‘hold points.’ Hold point inspections should be performed as specified, and typically include inspections after pre-cleaning, surface preparation, primer application, intermediate application, finish coat application and final cure. Each of these hold points will have multiple inspection checkpoints. A knowledgeable coatings inspector will also proactively pay specific attention to “problem areas” on a structure that may be difficult to properly clean and coat. Alternative methods of corrosion protection (e.g., caulking of crevices) may be explored by the facility owner/specifier to help avoid premature corrosion or breakdown of the coating in these areas. Finally, a coating inspector documents the outcomes of hold point and checkpoint inspections thoroughly, objectively, and timely, and prepares a narrative that gives context to the data that is recorded. An article on what makes a good coating inspector was published in the November 2022 edition of JPCL1.  

The Role of the Coatings Inspector in a Failure Investigation 

Despite efforts put forth by all parties on a coatings project (the owner/specifier, the contractor, the coating material supplier, and the inspector), coating failures occur. When they do, as directed by your client, you may play a role in assisting experts in determining the cause of the failure, as well as what can be done to prevent future failures from reoccurring. The coatings inspector will not typically investigate the failure directly, but rather cooperate during the investigative process. The skills of a failure consultant are very different than the skills of a coating inspector, just as the skills of a crime scene investigator are different than a police officer. However, it is also possible for experienced coating inspectors with proper training, education, certifications, and applicable skill sets to eventually become excellent failure investigators. 

It’s human nature to become defensive or blame others when the news first hits that a failure occurred. Statements like, “It wasn’t my fault; I inspected according to the specification,” “The paint was difficult to apply,” or “The specification was poorly written” are expressed without necessarily having a basis for them. Resisting the attempt to deflect blame is difficult, but while an investigation is underway, it is best to act professionally and remain dedicated to help in the investigation as authorized by your client. 

In the February 2023 edition of the Certified Coating Inspector Forum, we described the importance of documentation even though no one really enjoys the paperwork side of the business2. However, the importance of thorough, complete inspection documentation cannot be emphasized enough. Analogous to insurance, it is something we may never need, but when we do, we really do need it!  Inspection records will be scrutinized during the failure investigative process and may become a key component if the issue moves to litigation. Conversely, incomplete, or inaccurate records can be a detriment to the investigative process and can reflect poorly on the coating inspector. For example, if the failure is alleged to be related to incorrectly manufactured batches of coating and the inspector’s records do not indicate batch numbers, or do not reflect what batch was used on what portion(s) of the structure, the failure investigation can become increasingly difficult. Or simply recording that ambient conditions “met” the specification requirements without recording the actual temperatures, conditions, date, and time will be essentially useless in the failure investigation. The failure investigator may ask to interview the coatings inspector and request copies of inspection records, photographs, and other project documents to aid in the investigative process. The value of these documents is directly related to their completeness and accuracy. Again, your client may prohibit your initial involvement, depending on the direction the case may appear to be taking (e.g., litigation), but a coatings inspector must realize that inspection records, photographs, and written correspondence with the contractor, owner, and material supplier are all “discoverable” if the failure ends up in litigation. The inspector may be required to give a deposition, may need to testify, and may be subject to cross-examination in a courtroom. The quality of the inspection on the project and the completeness and accuracy of inspection records is a direct reflection on the credibility of the coating inspector. 

Support in Dispute Resolution 

Support in dispute resolution may include depositions and potential courtroom testimony (and the associated preparation). Each of these is explored below. Background on the workings of the legal system here in the United States (US) or internationally is beyond the scope of this column. The information that is presented is very cursory. 

Preparing For and Participating in a Deposition 

A deposition is a process in which an individual is questioned by attorneys for the purpose of gaining information to be used in litigation.  As a coating inspector you may be subpoenaed to give a deposition as a Fact Witness. A Court Reporter or Stenographer will be documenting every word spoken in the deposition. These transcripts are used during trial.  

The first rule of depositions is to answer the questions truthfully, without volunteering information.  It is the opposing attorney’s responsibility to understand the issues and to ask appropriate questions.  Remember that you are likely to be called as a Fact Witness, not an Expert, so your job is to just answer the questions based on the facts you witnessed, not to educate or render opinions as to the cause. A natural tendency of knowledgeable inspectors is to educate anyone who may care to listen.  As a Fact Witness, do not do this.  

On an episode of NBC’s The West Wing, an attorney was preparing the First Lady for a deposition.  The first question the attorney asked was “Do you know what time it is?”  The First Lady promptly responded “It’s 7:30.”  The attorney barked “No.  Not the right answer.” This is a good example of what is expected from a witness in a deposition.  The attorney asked a simple “yes or no” question, but the First Lady anticipated the meaning of the question and responded with more information than was requested.  Instead, there may have been as many as three questions needed to get to the desired response:  

1. “Do you know what time it is?” Yes. 

2. “Can you tell me the time?” Yes. 

3. “What time is it?” 7:30. 

Second, carefully consider each question that is posed, hesitating at least long enough to give your attorney the opportunity to object to the question.  The deposition transcript does not reflect hesitation or voice inflection, so the time taken to carefully reflect on a question is not included in the record.  Answers should be as brief as possible, without withholding the information necessary to truthfully answer the question, but avoid expressing opinions as would be the case for an Expert Witness. 

A deposition can be a long grueling process.  Attorneys will sometimes question you for hours, asking you the same or similar questions repeatedly, hoping that you will have a mental lapse.  If you are feeling fatigued or just need a break, insist that you break for a few minutes.  Take as many breaks as you feel you need to stay mentally alert. 

Preparing for and Testifying in Court 

The Plaintiff and Defendant may choose to settle the dispute out of court or proceed to trial. While cases involving coating failures are civil suits, rather than criminal (unless there is behavior like bribery or other illegal activity) there may be hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars at stake, so they are very serious. Since I am not an Attorney, I’ll leave preparation and testifying coaching to the professionals! But I’ll offer one recommendation: Always present a calm and professional demeanor.  If the opposing attorney feels that he can visibly upset you, he may try.  Any show of anger or defensiveness from the Fact Witness may be interpreted by the judge and/or jury as a lack of confidence or professionalism. If you read the project specification and associated documents, maintained knowledge of industry standards and their updates, inspected the work the way you have been trained to, used calibrated instruments, and documented accurately and thoroughly, you have nothing to hide. 


This edition of the Certified Coating Inspector Forum focused on the role of an inspector in both coating failure avoidance and during an investigation of a failure on a project they inspected. As trained and certified coating inspectors we hope that we never have to participate in a failure investigation or any form of dispute resolution. But if you do, it is important to be prepared. Preparation begins with the observations you make and the documentation you prepare while the work is being performed. 

1 Coatings 101, Inspection – What It Takes and What You Need to Know, JPCL Volume 39, No. 11, November 2022 

2 Let’s Talk About the Importance of Documentation, W. D. Corbett, KTA’s Certified Coating Inspector Forum. Volume 2, Issue No. 2, February 2023

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