The Role of Expert Witnesses in Personal Injury Cases

May 31, 2024 | - News & Insights

Witnesses play a pivotal role in personal injury cases, and often, the most important witnesses in any case are expert witnesses. These witnesses are trained professionals who assist the parties in developing fact-based theories of their cases and who testify as to their expert opinion on them. Expert testimony is often particularly compelling for juries; one side’s expert may be so persuasive that their testimony swings the case for their side. As a result, it is imperative for defendants in personal injury cases to hire and present the right experts, and a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can help. 

What Distinguishes Expert Witnesses From Lay Witnesses? 

Lay witnesses, also known as “fact witnesses,” are ordinary people who have personal knowledge of the events or facts giving rise to the litigation. They do not necessarily have any specialized knowledge that will assist the fact-finder (i.e., the judge or jury). If lay witnesses wish to offer an opinion in addition to facts, their testimony is limited to opinions or inferences that are: 

  1. Rationally based on their perception, and 
  2. Helpful to a clear understanding of their testimony or the determination of the facts in issue

Expert witnesses, on the other hand, have technical, scientific, or other specialized knowledge acquired through skill, experience, training, or education that will assist the fact-finder in understanding the evidence or determining a fact in issue. They do not necessarily need to have personal knowledge of the events or facts giving rise to the litigation. Instead, they review the facts of the case and render an expert opinion based on those facts. 

Expert testimony can be immensely valuable in personal injury cases, as it can lend credibility to the defense’s theory of the case, clarify complex technical issues for lay judges or juries, establish the relevant standard of care, refute the plaintiff’s theory of causation, and assess and calculate damages, among other benefits. 

Types of Experts Used in Personal Injury Litigation 

There are two types of experts typically used in personal injury litigation: consulting experts and testifying experts. 

Consulting experts are experts hired in anticipation of litigation to review the facts of the case and to assist the attorneys in understanding the technical issues the case presents. They typically do not testify at trial. They may help the party who hired them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their position and offer advice on how to discredit the other side’s potential theories. Testifying experts, as their name suggests, testify at trial by giving their expert opinion on a particular facet of the case. They typically do not assist with litigation strategy like consulting experts do. Another important distinction between the two types of experts is that a testifying expert’s opinions, discussions, impressions, and other matters are discoverable by the other party, while a consulting expert’s are not. 

Professionals who commonly serve as expert witnesses in personal injury cases include doctors and other medical professionals, vocational health experts, accident reconstruction experts, highway safety experts, manufacturing experts, and financial experts. 

Evaluating and Qualifying Expert Witnesses 

Who qualifies as an “expert?” There is no bright-line rule for separating experts from non-experts, so the party seeking to admit the expert testimony bears the burden of proving that the witness is, in fact, an expert. To demonstrate that a witness is competent to offer expert opinions, the party seeking to admit the testimony typically presents evidence that speaks to the following matters:

  • The expert’s current and former occupations
  • How long the expert has held their current occupation 
  • The field in which the expert specializes
  • The expert’s education and training 
  • The kinds of matters the expert deals with and how long they’ve been dealing with them 
  • Any licenses or certificates the expert holds

For more information about qualifying particular expert witnesses for trial, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney

Admissibility of Expert Testimony 

Just because a witness qualifies as an expert does not necessarily mean that their testimony will be admissible. For expert testimony to be admissible in North Carolina, it must meet the following four requirements: 

  • The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the fact-finder understand the evidence or determine a fact at issue  
  • The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data 
  • The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods 
  • The witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case 

Of course, the parties to personal injury litigation can (and frequently do) challenge the admissibility of each side’s expert witnesses. They typically do so when they doubt the veracity of the expert’s opinion by arguing, for example, that it is unreliable or that their methods are not based on sound science. Judges assess the reliability and relevance of expert testimony using the Daubert standard, which requires the judge to consider the following factors when determining whether the expert’s methodology is valid: 

  • Whether the technique or theory can be and has been, tested
  • Whether the technique has been subject to publication and peer review
  • The technique’s known or potential error rate
  • The existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique’s operation
  • Whether the technique has attracted widespread acceptance within the relevant scientific community

Challenges to the admissibility of expert testimony frequently involve one or more of these factors and are hence known as “Daubert challenges.” Challenging the admissibility of expert testimony can be a complex and highly technical endeavor, but our North Carolina personal injury defense attorneys have extensive experience doing so.  

Choose the Right Expert Witness With Help From a North Carolina Personal Injury Defense Attorney 

Defendants in personal injury cases must choose carefully when selecting an expert witness, as expert testimony can often make the difference between a win and a loss. The best way to pick the right witness is with the counsel of an experienced lawyer. For more information, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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