Module 9: Expert Witness Testimony
- Learn why expert witnesses are treated differently by the courts.
- Understand why so many experts were involved in the Woburn toxic trial.
- Describe why the geology experts were crucial to the success of the trial, particularly after Judge Skinner broke the trial into three separate portions.
Testimony from recognized experts has become commonplace in civil trials. The increased use of experts has been attributed to problems requiring legal decisions that require specialized experience. Experts are recognized as having specific knowledge, training or experience to help the court understand the problems that are brought before them and decide if negligence or damages have occurred that justify civil penalties (Bradley, 1983).
Who is an expert?
An expert typically is an individual who has education, unique training or experience regarding a specific trade or profession.based on these qualifications the individual is recognized as being in authority on the specific subject. Part of the trial process is qualifying a person as an expert. This typically includes demonstrating the training or work experience relative to the issue at hand. Expert witnesses are unique in the court system in that they are permitted to provide opinions rather than just present factual information. The Opinion Rule, Article VII defines how expert opinions may be used in civil proceedings. Exhibits presented by the experts during testimony are subject to the Rules of Evidence, as outlined in Article X of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Exhibits must adhere to the standards of practice for the particular industry in which expert practices.
Why were experts so important in the Woburn trial?
In many aspects, the Woburn Toxic Trial was establishing precedents regarding responsibility of corporations for handling hazardous waste and establishing medically valid connections between waste impacts to the environment and to human health. Another aspect of the trial questions the role of the city with preventing residents from being exposed to contaminated water. To establish their positions both the plaintiffs in the defendants utilized numerous experts to provide opinions supporting the arguments that either claim or denied responsibility for creating pollution that affected the Woburn water supply and ultimately resulted in cancer clusters. What complicated the Woburn trial was the lack of conclusive data in 1986 relative to hydrogeology and medical science. Since both science and medicine are constantly being reevaluated and redefined, both the plaintiffs and the defense were able to qualify experts who had conflicting opinions. Part of the jury's struggle during the trial was to determine who's data was more accurate. The role play exercise (Module 12-Mock Trial) challenges students to persuasively convince the jury of their opinion.
What makes and expert effective?
Part of the experts role is that of teacher. An expert is selected for testimony because of their unique experience, and their success in the courtroom hinges on their ability to convey their relevance of the experience clearly to the jury. So an expert has to to make a presentation that's simple clear and direct. It is important to prepare testimony from the perspective of the court and jurors and recognize the value of visual aids as instruction tools. Court exhibits should prepared in draft and vetted to persons not involved with the case to gauge the effectiveness if the exhibits 'story'. A good exhibit is intuitive and should 'tell a story' with minimal verbal explanation. Another important consideration for experts is their depth of understanding is meaningless unless the can covey their knowledge to non-expert audiences.