safety-in-schoolAs the presence of school safety related litigation increases, so does the availability of school safety experts who provide the necessary support services associated with such litigation. However, selection of the appropriate expert witness, amongst the plethora of potential candidates, may require a more thorough examination of that witness’s experience, background, and credentials, when dealing with school safety litigation, as opposed to other civilly litigated matters. This careful evaluation holds true, whether viewed from a plaintiff’s or defense counsel’s standpoint. In their article Evaluating an Expert Witness for School Safety Cases, the attorneys comment on the expert witness selection process. “Court cases involving school safety issues are extremely important because they can at times involve not only millions of dollars, but also have a major impact on the lives of victims, surviving family members as well as the people and organizations names as defendants.”

How then, can legal professionals be sure that a selected school safety expert is the most suitable professional to provide expertise in accordance with the specific needs of a particular case? To address this issue, it is first important to know what, exactly, a school safety expert witness is, and more importantly the procedures or lack thereof, involved in acquiring the status of a school safety expert.

The phrase ‘School safety expert’ is an extremely broad term, which in actual practice is comprised of a wide variety of individual niche areas of expertise.  There are hundreds of individual practice areas encompassed within the general category of school safety experts. While some experts may claim to possess the knowledge, skill and experience necessary to provide support services to any and all school safety practice areas, legal professionals are cautioned to investigate the validity of such claims. This is because there may, perhaps, only be a handful of school safety experts who are equipped to address each and every practice area related to school safety. A good starting point, then, may require careful consideration of all potential issues that may arise in a particular case, followed by precise questioning directed at the candidate(s) selected to provide expertise.

Upon satisfaction that an expert is adequately knowledgeable in the specific areas required, it is then important to consider the potential credibility, and thus, value, of that expert, in anticipation of attack on such credibility by opposing counsel. In short, just because an expert is knowledgeable does not mean the expert is necessarily credible. As pointed out by attorneys in the aforementioned article: “A short time spent on internet search engines will demonstrate that almost anyone can become a school safety consultant simply by printing a business card.” The lack of procedural and/or educational requirements involved in acquiring school safety expert status, therefore, can be highly problematic to legal professionals.  The vast majority of states have failed to implement legislative policies that regulate this growing profession. Consequently, in the absence of such regulation, legal professionals have been left to their own devises in the witness selection process, which, unfortunately may result in the subsequent realization that utilizing the expert is either impermissible [disqualification], or will present a detrimental outcome.

An additional and often overlooked evaluative procedure in selecting a school safety expert should include investigation into that expert’s personal background. No legal professional wants to find themselves in the middle of trial to discover, for the first time, that the jury has just been presented with testimony during cross examination by opposing counsel which reveals that your expert’s background includes questionable events or activities. Likewise, given the time and expense involved in expert support services, a subsequent discovery of your expert’s questionable background, it may be wise practice to either do your own investigative research, or select an expert from a service which provides pre-screened expert witness support services.  In another article written by a school safety expert, entitled Hiring an Expert Witness? 10 Questions You Should Ask, “Finding out during a deposition that the expert witness was terminated from a prior position for embezzlement of funds, has been arrested for shoplifting, or does not actually have a Ph.D. as claimed on their resume is not a good thing.”

As a general rule of thumb, in consideration as to which expert can provide the most beneficial services, it is better practice to carefully perform an adequate amount of preliminary research, as opposed to reliance on assertions stated within an expert’s resume or curriculum vitae. This is especially important given the fact that once an expert has been selected, and the required disclosures have been provided to opposing counsel, it may be too late to replace an expert, upon the subsequent discovery that your expert is lacking in appropriate knowledge, credentials or credibility, and therefore is disqualified, or otherwise, for tactical purposes should be withdrawn.

The methodology related to the expert witness selection process suggested herein are not exhaustive, but rather are provided for the purpose bringing  attention to the necessity of a careful, proper, and comprehensive evaluation, which are more appropriately performed at the initial stages of litigation.

By: Alicia McKnight, J.D.