Personal Injury Lawyer
Expert witnesses usually testify in personal injury trials. Treating physicians can count as Experts in some cases. In particular, they will testify that a victim’s injuries were caused by the wreck. When the injuries have not fully healed by the time of trial, a physician will also offer an opinion about permanent disability that will impair the victim in the future. Your personal injury lawyer can explain this as it relates to your particular case.
Experts also provide opinions that help a jury determine if someone’s negligence actually harmed another person. With medical malpractice, expert witnesses testify about the standard of care governs a competent doctor’s care, and they will offer an opinion as to whether the victim’s physician followed that standard or not.
When illnesses or injuries are caused by dangerous drugs, an expert will rely on scientific studies to support the expert’s opinion that the drug caused the victim’s health condition. When car parts fail, engineering experts will explain why the design or manufacture of the component caused the injury.
When drivers disagree about which driver caused an accident, experts reconstruct the scene to determine where it occurred and how it happened. When a small child climbs furniture that topples over and crushes the child, experts explain why the design of the furniture was unsafe.
Admissibility of Expert Opinions
The insurance industry and the business community have engaged in a decades-long campaigns to convince the public that juries are easily fooled by experts who base opinions on “junk science.” They have tried to persuade the public that “runaway juries” in “judicial hellholes” have been fooled into returning unjust verdicts against large corporations.
The goal of industry lobbyists is to minimize their company’s losses, and verdicts against their company directly impact their bottom line. Since many claims cannot be proven without an expert, their goal is to shield businesses from the financial consequences of their negligent conduct.
Courts for most of the twentieth century allowed juries to evaluate the reliability of expert testimony. The prevailing test (known as the Frye standard because of the Supreme Court case in which it originated) didn’t allow expert testimony if it was based on a new or novel theory that had not been generally accepted by the scientific community.
The fact that a theory is new or novel does not mean it is wrong or lesser. The Frye standard was criticized for excluding useful expert evidence from juries. Since most expert evidence is based on established scientific methods, the Frye standard allowed most experts to testify. The standard recognized that juries, not judges, should evaluate evidence and decide whether it is believable.
In 1993, the Supreme Court adopted the Daubert standard (again named after the case that adopted the test) for the evaluation of expert testimony in federal court. The Daubert standard is more inclusive than Frye, as it allows expert opinions that are new or novel.
However, since the Daubert standard requires trial judges to decide whether an expert formed his or her opinion by applying a reliable methodology, the Daubert standard can also be more restrictive than Frye. Judges rather than juries decide whether an expert’s methodology is reliable when they apply the Daubert standard.
Judges are not allowed to evaluate the expert’s credibility because that is the jury’s function. However, the line between reliability and credibility is so thin that disputes often arise about whether a judge is substituting his or her own view of an expert’s opinion for the view that a jury might reasonably take.
The assumption underlying Daubert is that judges are better suited than jurors to decide whether experts have based their opinions on reliable methodologies. But judges are not trained as scientists, engineers, physicians, or other such experts. This leads to common disputes between the parties once the judge has issued their ruling.
Daubert in State Court
Many states have adopted some version of the Daubert standard, yet judges often have very different views of how Daubert should be applied. Some see the Daubert standard as liberalizing the admission of expert opinions. Others see their role as keeping experts from testifying unless there is no doubt about the correctness of their expert opinions.
The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that judges should not usurp the jury’s role in “choosing between legitimate but conflicting scientific views.” The legitimacy of an expert opinion, the court held, should usually be decided by the jury. That view protects the rights of all parties, as opposed to protecting the financial interests of insurance companies and other businesses.