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Expert Witnesses: The Key to Simplifying Complex Cases

Expert witnesses have played a significant role in some of the most famous trials in history. 

A forensic pathologist was an expert witness in the trials of O.J. Simpson and Phil Spector. In the Enron trial, financial experts testified about the company's accounting practices. Experts in childhood development testified that tobacco companies were targeting children in their advertising; their testimony led to the history-making tobacco settlement in 1998. In all of these cases, expert witnesses played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the trial.

It’s not just the major cases, either; expert witnesses are critical to building a strong case in civil and criminal proceedings of all sizes and kinds. In personal injury cases, expert witnesses can provide important scientific evidence, offer unbiased opinions, and provide credibility to a plaintiff's claims. When you’re a plaintiff, the expert witnesses chosen by your attorneys could impact the rest of your life. 

In this article, we'll discuss the distinction between an expert witness and a lay witness, who can testify as an expert witness, the qualifications for being an expert witness in Texas, and how the other party might challenge an expert witness.

Expert Witnesses vs. Lay Witnesses

In a jury trial, the jurors act as fact-finders. They hear information relevant to a case, apply the law as directed by the court, and hand down a verdict. Witnesses help provide the information juries require to come to a decision. In cases where a jury might require additional context or specialized knowledge to make an informed ruling, the court admits the testimony of expert witnesses. 

So, the main difference between an expert witness and a lay witness is specialized knowledge or experience. 

A lay witness is a person who has firsthand knowledge of the events in question, i.e. an eyewitness. Their testimony is limited to what they saw, heard, or experienced. An expert witness, on the other hand, has specialized knowledge and can provide an opinion beyond the understanding of the average person. For example, a medical doctor might testify as an expert witness on the cause of a patient's injuries. 

Whether a person is an expert or a lay witness also comes down to what they’re speaking about. Lay witnesses are also called fact witnesses because their testimony is limited to the facts of the case: who, what, when, and where. Expert witnesses are sometimes called opinion witnesses because they offer informed opinions founded on their experience, knowledge, and skills. As a result, courtroom rules apply different standards to each type of witness. 

What Kind of Experts Can Testify in Court?

In general, anyone with specialized knowledge and experience in a particular field can testify as an expert witness. 

The key is that the person must be able to provide an opinion based on expertise to help the jury understand complex issues. Examples of expert witnesses include a psychiatrist testifying about a person's mental state, a mechanical engineer testifying about the state of an oil rig when it exploded, a doctor testifying about a victim's lifelong outlook after an accident, or an accountant testifying about the financial outlook for someone who can no longer work.

Whether an expert is qualified to testify is determined by the court on a case-by-case basis. The question of qualification isn't "are they an expert in their field?" but "do they possess knowledge to help the jury make a fair and just ruling?" So, a world-renowned heart surgeon might be disqualified as a witness if the case pertains to a spine injury, unless the spine injury is related to the heart somehow. An expert engineer who works on airplanes might be disqualified from testifying about a car crash, and so on.

When Someone Challenges an Expert Witness

In Texas, the rules of evidence require that expert witnesses meet certain qualifications. Specifically, the witness must have specialized knowledge or experience in a particular field and be able to demonstrate that their opinion is founded on reliable principles and methods.

But expert witnesses aren’t infallible. That’s why courts allow either party to challenge the qualifications or reliability of a witness during pretrial.

Your attorneys may challenge the expert witnesses put forward by the defendant. For instance, when tobacco companies were fighting lawsuits over cigarettes causing cancer, they brought forward doctors who testified that heavy smoking didn’t cause cancer in a particular case. These experts, despite their knowledge and experience, weren't necessarily presenting a clear picture of the truth. Challenging these witnesses and bringing forward your own experts to counter the defendant’s claims help the jury uncover the truth.

If you're filing a lawsuit in Texas, the Rules of Evidence determine whether someone can be an expert witness. Rules 702 to 705 require two tests for expert witnesses: 1) Are they qualified? 2) Is their testimony relevant and reliable? A witness will be disqualified if they fail either test. If a witness’ credentials are challenged, the burden falls on the party who seeks admissibility to prove the witness's qualifications, relevance, and reliability.

The Importance of Hiring an Expert Witness for Complex Cases

In a personal injury case, the testimony of an expert witness can be the deciding factor in determining liability and damages. 

For instance, in a medical malpractice case, an expert witness can help explain medical procedures, diagnose injuries, and provide testimony regarding whether the care provided was below the standard of care. Similarly, in a product liability case, an expert witness can provide scientific evidence regarding a defective product and the resulting injuries. In both these cases, the expert witness can provide an unbiased and informed opinion to help the jury make a fair and just ruling. 

Ultimately, having the right expert witness on your side can significantly increase your chances of not only winning your case, but of making the defendant’s wrongdoing a matter of scientifically proven public record. That’s crucial to ensuring they never repeat the negligent behavior that led to your harm. 

In the grand scheme of things, that’s important for everyone’s safety as well as your future.

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