The Many Roles of an Expert Witness During a Legal Case


We live in a complex global economy and, as such, lawsuits and investigations are often centered on technical and financial issues. The attorneys representing clients in these disputes are hired for their legal prowess and industry experience, but the simple fact is that even the most astute litigator cannot be a subject matter in every issue a client may be facing. It’s for this reason that attorneys turn to professionals with the requisite expertise to support them in achieving success in their cases.

Expert knowledge and advice come into play in various stages of a legal matter. Experts may assist lawyers with technical information and opinions during early case assessments. Support with factual development may also be necessary as lawyers develop case strategies or test theories. Lastly, experts are frequently called upon to provide expert testimony to help juries understand technical issues related to the facts of the case.

The success of an expert’s testimony is not based solely on their technical knowledge and experience.  Their information delivery, body language, tone of voice, and appearance all impact a jury’s perceptions of the testimony.

The Expert Role in Early Case Assessment

When a new case comes across an attorney’s desk, the first thing a savvy lawyer must do is assess and develop the facts at hand. They’ll work with the client to interview involved parties and collect relevant research in order to find out what happened and who knew what, when. Then the hard work of analyzing this data to assess the risks and merits of a case begins. Accurate, informed early case assessments largely depend on the lawyer’s understanding of the meaning, context, and nuances of the fact pattern. And this will often involve the assistance of experts in fields relevant to the case matter.

Take, for example, a case involving allegations of inadequate safety features in automobiles where accidents, injuries, or deaths have occurred. Even if a lawyer has served as the auto manufacturer’s outside counsel for 20 years, they won’t have the experience or intimate and intricate knowledge of how the car’s technical safety features were designed, manufactured, or quality checked. Also, in this scenario, the company’s engineers and experts cannot provide unbiased help in assessing the facts as they’re likely key players in what did or did not go wrong in the process.

In this example, the attorney must seek out an automobile manufacturing engineer expert to help them understand technical manufacturing processes and procedures for the particular vehicle at issue in the case. Expert consultants review records and data to help understand the facts in a case early on so the lawyer can assess how bad, good, or in between the case’s merits appear. Initial expert consultation can also be critical in helping a lawyer prepare to interview witnesses.

After gaining an understanding of the initially available facts, attorneys must develop their case strategy. During this process, attorneys will likely require expert advice and analysis on specific industry standards to assist in determining how to proceed. This can inform whether an attorney will advise the client to fight, settle, or continue to explore case risks. A lawyer may also need an expert to help develop chronologies or help them test case theories.  Lawyers can significantly improve their negotiating postures and plans with careful expert analysis on complicated technical issues bound to come up in meetings with regulators or opposing counsel throughout the legal proceedings.

Consider a case where a pharmaceutical company faces a lawsuit for wrongful death or negligence related to one of its drugs. Such cases may involve plaintiff claims of adverse side effects from taking the drug and understanding these claims will likely require a medical degree and highly qualified experience. Here, a lawyer may seek out a medical expert who can advise them on areas such as the likelihood of the drug compound causing the alleged injuries, or how the drug interacts with other common medications.

This type of complex pharmaceutical case matter would also likely require expert input on new drug testing methodologies to assess how the defendant manufacturer handled this drug’s development. This expert might have to review the testing protocols used by the defendant and compare them to industry standards or federal drug administration technical requirements. Expert knowledge in these kinds of cases offers robust guidance for an attorney as they explore all possible avenues of their case strategy.

Expert Testimony During Deposition & Trial

As settlement negotiations reach a dead end and a case proceeds to trial, lawyers will need experts experienced in giving testimony to a jury. Earlier in the process, an expert may also be asked to give a deposition, where the opposition asks them questions on the technical subject matter of the case. Expert testimony can be critical to case outcomes. Lawyers look for experts who can explain complicated facts to a jury in a way that is easy for layperson-jurors to understand. The ideal expert will also be objective, neutral, and credible in delivering their testimony.

Simplify Complex Topics

In a patent litigation case, for example, a lawyer may need to rely on an expert to explain how a piece of hardware used in a defendant’s mobile phone model is different from the hardware designs the plaintiff claims the defendant copied and used in violation of their patent. A good expert will not use industry jargon that can confuse juries and turn them off from listening to the testimony. Rambling testimony where an expert goes on and on about minute technical details in a patent case courtroom will not help the jury understand the facts within the case context. Experts must break down complicated subjects that they’re intimately familiar with into digestible testimony that a jury can take in and understand.

Beyond Technical Expertise

The success of an expert’s testimony is not based solely on their technical knowledge and experience.  Their information delivery, body language, tone of voice, and appearance all impact a jury’s perceptions of the testimony. Lawyers need experts that project authenticity and authority in a courtroom. The most effective expert can cogently explain complex topics to the jury with a friendly demeanor and professional image.

Overall, professionals with technical expertise and communication skills are a valuable asset to legal professionals. Lawyers cannot successfully present cases without competent expert consultant advice upfront, or experts that can provide credible, objective information that helps jury comprehension. In today’s legal landscape, it is not an overstatement to say, legal success often depends on reliable expert assistance.

AUTHOR:Carolyn Casey, J.D. / The Expert Institute

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.