There is a clear line that marks the edge between witness testimony and expert witness testimony, and being able to cross that line to present expert witness testimony can make all the difference for findings of liability and computation of damages.
All over the news last week was a case out of Hempfield, PA with a $109 million jury verdict which illustrates the crucial need for expert testimony – on both sides of a personal injury claim. A key issue was whether a power line snapped and came down upon the victim or whether it was already down. The expert witness for the victim testified that the line was overhead and fell down upon the victim while dialing 911 to report a power outage to her home and trees on fire from felled power lines. The expert witness for defendant energy company testified that the power line that caused the victim’s death was already on the ground.
Once qualified by the judge during a trial, expert witnesses are permitted to testify on matters that would otherwise draw proper objections from a witness with no direct sensory experience or subject matter expertise. The expert witness can examine pieces of evidence, like accident scenes and medical reports, and fill in the missing pieces of the narrative to assess liability and quantify damages.
In the Hempfield case, the expert witness for the victim’s family was a PhD biomechanical engineer, who works for attorneys in accident investigation and reconstruction failure analysis. She has testified in several multi-million dollar verdict cases. Her expert testimony was based upon photographs of the scene, witness depositions, illustrations and incident reports, and a site visit. In her specific language, the expert witness emphasized the location of burn marks as evidence to support her conclusion about how the incident occurred.
The value add of the expert witness for a judge and a jury is that it stitches together the pieces of the narrative into a cohesive story. The judge or jury may or may not agree with the conclusions reached by the expert witness, but they then have a concrete version of events against which to conduct their deliberations.
If you are debating whether to use an expert witness, that the testimony of the expert witness is afforded great weight in that deliberation process. In order to testify, an expert witness must be qualified as an “expert” by the judge. The expert witness credentials are paraded at length in front of the court, emphasis is placed upon experiences related to the issues on trial, and a lengthy dialogue can be had about materials that might not yet have been brought before the court all in the name of describing the extensive background work performed. Indeed, qualifying the expert witness can serve as a persuasive statement at court that this is the only witness to which you really need to pay attention.
With no reduction in damages being awarded by the jury, it is clear that at least in Hempfield, PA, the jury credited the expert witness for the victim’s family with her event recreation over that of the expert witness for the power company.
It’s legal news that should have you asking: are you this prepared for a battle of experts for your next trial?
By: Paloma Capanna, J.D.