What is an Expert Witnesses (and why does my lawyer want to hire one)?
A personal injury and accident lawyer explains the roles of expert witnesses in personal injury lawsuits.
In personal injury cases, there will usually be two conflicting interpretations of the evidence presented to the court and jury. In order to help the court understand the significance of certain evidence, an accident lawyer representing an injured client may summon an expert witness to offer an interpretation of how the available evidence supports the injured party’s case.
The Federal Rule of Evidence (702) defines an expert witness to be an individual whose “… knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education… [will] help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Unlike the typical witness who can only testify to what they saw without rendering an opinion, an expert witness offers his or her opinions based on the evidence presented in court. Each state has guidelines regarding the qualifications of expert witnesses, and the credentials of each such expert must be approved of by the court.
Types of expert witnesses
Although there are many fields of study and experience that may lead to the testimony of an expert witness, experts usually fall into one of several broad categories.
- Medical professionals and paraprofessionals
Many expert witnesses will come from the ranks of physicians, nurses, therapists, and other medical professions. These witnesses can offer testimony regarding the accepted methods of treatment for a given condition and whether or not those standards were adhered to in the treatment of an accident victim. This type of testimony is frequently offered in cases alleging medical malpractice.
Expert medical witnesses can also offer their opinions regarding the seriousness of an injury, the potential for an accident victim to recover, and the anticipated costs of future medical care. Such testimony can be invaluable in determining the amount of damages to be awarded to an accident victim.
Accident reconstructionists will analyze the evidence presented in court and offer their opinion as to the “hows and whys” an accident occurred. By offering their opinion regarding the circumstances surrounding an accident these witnesses may firmly establish the liability of a defendant for personal injury claims.
- Traffic and civil engineers
These witnesses are usually drawn from the active and retired engineering faculties at universities where engineers are trained. Traffic and civil engineers are qualified to judge the reliability of road conditions and traffic control measures in both urban and rural areas. If there is the possibility that poor road conditions and/or malfunctioning traffic lights may have contributed to an accident, these experts will offer their opinions regarding the possibility of such factors contributing to an accident.
- Regulatory and administrative law specialists
These experts are qualified to render opinions regarding the compliance of commercial transportation companies with required maintenance schedules and whether or not an employee, such as a truck driver or a railroad engineer, may have violated the “on-duty / off-duty” regulations established by the Department of Transportation. Expert witnesses of this type can be invaluable in cases that involve commercial trucking and other freight-hauling operations.
There are, of course, many other situations that might require the services of an expert witness. Your accident attorney will contact such experts if he or she thinks their assistance will be valuable in the preparation of your case for trial or presenting your case in court.
Why you may need the testimony of an expert witness
As any accident lawyer will tell you, the testimony of an expert witness will often “make or break” a complicated personal injury case. This is why an accident lawyer will try to find an expert witness who can understand the complex issues involved in a personal injury case and, most importantly, an expert witness who can explain these issues in terms that are easily understood by a jury.
By definition, “expert witnesses” are recognized as having expertise in their respective fields and are often in great demand by accident lawyers dealing with complicated accident and personal injury cases. These experts can often command fees that may seem out of line to accident victims and such concerns are understandable.
Depending on your arrangements with your accident attorney, expert witness fees may be covered by your accident lawyer’s contingency fee agreement and the expert will be paid out of your lawyer’s portion of your settlement. In other cases your attorney may handle these fees for you and you will reimburse your lawyer when your case is settled. Regardless of fees and other issues, if your accident attorney says that you need an expert witness, you need that expert!