To successfully claim compensation after an accident that wasn’t your fault, you need to prove the accident caused your injuries, the extent of your injuries, and how your injuries will impact you long-term. One of the most effective ways of doing this is via expert witnesses.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss the role of expert witnesses in a personal injury claim, the qualifications they should have, and how personal injury attorneys choose expert witnesses to support their case.
What Is an Expert Witness?
An expert witness has specialized knowledge and experience in a specific field. They’re often called upon in personal injury cases to provide testimony, which can establish liability and damages (how much compensation you are entitled to).
Expert Witnesses versus Lay Witnesses
Anybody can be a witness, but whether or not they are an expert witness depends on several factors, such as their background, qualifications, and role in the accident:
- Expert witnesses provide opinions based on specialized knowledge and experience.
- Lay witnesses rely on their personal knowledge and experience.
Let’s say you’re in a car accident. Examples of lay witnesses might include a driver or pedestrian who was not involved in the crash but saw it happen or a friend or family member with personal knowledge about your pain and how your injuries have impacted your life.
Examples of expert witnesses in a car accident case can include:
- The medical expert who treated or examined your injuries.
- A psychiatrist who can testify about the emotional impact of your injuries — such as emotional distress or post-traumatic stress disorder. If the defendant also sustained injuries in the crash and claims they have emotional trauma, a psychiatrist may evaluate them for signs of malingering.
- An occupational therapist who can testify about when you can return to work and what duties you will be able to perform.
- An accident reconstructionist who can illustrate how the accident happened and who caused it.
- An economic expert who can calculate your losses and estimate future damages, accounting for inflation and economic trends.
Law enforcement may also testify in a personal injury case, but an officer can be a lay or expert witness, depending on the purpose of their testimony. Police officers are typically called as lay witnesses. For example, in a car accident personal injury trial, an officer may testify about a driver’s behavior, such as if a driver appeared intoxicated. However, a digital forensics officer may testify in an expert capacity about cell phone records that prove a driver was using their phone at the time of the crash.
Both types of testimony are valuable in a personal injury case. Lay witnesses may be able to provide details about an accident, but expert opinion grounded in an individual’s professional experience can be critical to prove fault and demonstrate how much compensation a plaintiff (the person bringing the claim) is entitled to.
Expert testimony is often vital when there is conflicting eyewitness testimony. This is more common than you might think. Many people struggle to remember what they were doing on any given day six months ago, let alone an event they were not directly involved in that may have happened years ago.
Fortunately, expert witnesses can provide objective analysis based on scientific evidence and professional experience, which is much harder to discredit.
How Personal Injury Attorneys Choose Expert Witnesses
Expert witness testimony can have a massive impact on the outcome of a claim, so personal injury attorneys must select witnesses carefully. This process includes researching potential witnesses, evaluating their qualifications and experience, and interviewing them to assess their communication and testimony skills.
The Battle of the Experts
In some personal injury cases, both the plaintiff and the defendant will present expert witnesses with conflicting opinions. This “battle of the experts” can be a challenging aspect of litigation.
It commonly plays out as follows:
- The plaintiff’s expert testifies.
- The defense’s expert witness contradicts the plaintiff witness’s testimony.
- The plaintiff’s expert doubles down and claims the defense’s expert witness was wrong during the rebuttal case. This is when the plaintiff can address any evidence presented by the defendant — the plaintiff always gets the final word.
It’s easy to see the issue here. Jurors will likely be confused about who to believe.
Ultimately, it is up to the jury to assess the credibility of each expert witness and decide how much weight they will give to each of their testimony. When evaluating an expert witness’s credibility, the jury will consider several factors, including:
- Their qualifications
- Their experience
- The strength of the evidence supporting their opinions
- How they communicate.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate how a jury might use these factors to determine which testimony to give more weight to.
An individual sues a driver after sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a truck accident. The impact left them with dysarthria, a condition that causes slurred or slow speech that can be difficult to understand.
Both sides call traumatic brain injury expert witnesses to testify to the TBI’s severity and the plaintiff’s symptoms. The defendant’s expert has been in the field longer than the plaintiff’s expert, but the latter has extensive, dedicated experience evaluating individuals with dysarthria.
Both expert witnesses rely on imaging tests that pinpoint the cause of the brain injury. However, they disagree on the long-term impact of the injury, with the plaintiff’s expert testifying that the truck accident victim’s slurred speech is unlikely to improve, even with extensive speech therapy.
At first, you might assume the defense has the upper hand because their expert witness has more experience. However, the plaintiff’s traumatic brain injury expert witness may score credibility points because of their experience with dysarthria.
This is when a witness’s communication skills come into play.
In this example, the defendant’s expert witness sounds credible. They use big words that illustrate they know what they’re talking about — such as “spasticity,” “imprecise articulation,” “diffuse axonal injury,” and “axions” — but it leaves the jurors scratching their heads.
The plaintiff’s expert translates the hard-to-understand concepts into accessible language. They describe “axonal shearing” as “damage to the connections between brain cells” and a “subdural hematoma” as “bleeding on the brain that can cause pressure and sickness.”
The typical jury pool is diverse, comprising people from all walks of life, and few are likely to have the background of an expert witness. Therefore, a witness’s ability to communicate clearly without alienating the jury can make all the difference.
The Role of Expert Witnesses outside of Trial
While expert witnesses often testify in court, they can also play a role outside the courtroom.
An essential part of the personal injury trial procedure is the discovery phase — when both sides gather evidence to support their case. Attorneys may depose witnesses as part of this process.
A deposition is recorded testimony under oath but outside of the courtroom. During a deposition, attorneys for both sides question the witness to gather information. Attorneys may also introduce the deposition at trial, allowing the jury to consider the evidence even if the witness cannot testify.
Expert witnesses may also work in a consultancy capacity, providing reports based on an analysis of the accident scene or existing medical records. These can be introduced at trial or leveraged to negotiate a settlement.
Sometimes, a personal injury lawyer may retain an expert witness solely for settlement negotiations. Here, witnesses use their expertise to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a claim and help parties reach a fair settlement.
The Cost of Hiring an Expert Witness
Hiring an expert witness can be costly. An expert witness’s compensation will vary depending on the nature and complexity of the case, their expertise and experience, and the services they provide. Common expenses include:
Time spent testifying: Expert witnesses are often paid for their time on the stand, either by hour or day.
Consultancy: Expert witnesses may also be compensated for their time consulting with attorneys and preparing for trial, including reviewing evidence, conducting research, and providing opinions and advice.
Appointments and evaluations: Expert witnesses like doctors or psychiatrists may need to meet the plaintiff to evaluate their symptoms and form a professional opinion on their long-term prognosis.
Travel expenses: If an expert witness must travel to attend court or meetings with attorneys, they may be reimbursed for airfare, accommodation, and meals.
It’s common practice to compensate witnesses for their time and expertise. Experts must provide objective and unbiased testimony, regardless of how much they’re paid.
However, while expert witness testimony can be critical, it’s not always necessary or appropriate.
When the cost of hiring an expert outweighs the potential benefits of their testimony, or where the facts are clear or supported by other evidence, your personal injury lawyer may advise against working with expert witnesses. Ultimately, the more money spent on witnesses — whether for reports, depositions, or trial testimony — the less you will receive in your settlement.
An expert witness’s specialized knowledge and experience can prove crucial in a personal injury case, especially when multiple parties may be at fault for the accident, or you’re entitled to significant damages. Our San Antonio and McAllen personal injury lawyers have a carefully curated network of experts who can provide expert reports, evaluate your health, investigate your accident, give depositions, and testify in court.
Contact our personal injury lawyers in San Antonio and McAllen today to see if you have a claim. We’re available 24/7 — call 855-LAW-NINJA, fill in the confidential contact form, or pop into one of our offices for a free, no-obligation consultation:
We promise you won’t pay us until we win your claim.