Category Archives: Business Development for Experts

Apple vs Samsung Expert Witness

Can an Expert Witness in a Criminal Case Give Remote Testimony?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives, courts have been cautious about protecting trial participants from the risk of infection. Many trials have been delayed. When a criminal defendant is detained while awaiting trial, however, judges must weigh the defendant’s right to a speedy trial against the dangers of holding a trial.

Criminal trials are moving forward in many jurisdictions. Courtrooms have been reconfigured to allow mask-wearing jurors to practice social distancing. The number of observers allowed in the courtroom is typically limited. Yet problems arise when witnesses are unwilling to risk an infection by traveling during the pandemic.

Remote Testimony

In civil cases, many courts have permitted remote testimony of witnesses. In some instances, the testimony is taken in the form of a videotaped deposition prior to trial that is then played to the jury. In other cases, witnesses give live testimony through videoconferencing technology.

Remote testimony can be frustrating for a number of reasons. Low bandwidth can cause the audio or video feed of live testimony to freeze, interrupting the flow of direct or cross-examination. It is also more difficult for juries to assess the credibility of a witness on a television screen than a witness who is testifying from the witness chair.

Confrontation Clause Issues

Constitutional considerations come into play when remote testimony is requested in criminal cases. For example, suppose the prosecution wants to call a crime lab analyst as an expert witness. If the analyst has a health condition that increases the expert’s vulnerability an infection, the expert might ask to testify remotely. A court will likely be forced to deny that request.

In Crawford v. Washington, the Supreme Court held that the Confrontation Clause allows a defendant to insist that testimony be given in person. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Court held that the results of forensic testing cannot be introduced in the form of a report unless an expert witness gives live testimony about the results.

The Supreme Court has not decided whether and when live testimony given from a remote location satisfies the Confrontation Clause. However, the Court decided in Coy v. Iowa that child witnesses could not be permitted to sit behind a screen while testifying because the Confrontation Clause demands face-to-face cross-examination. Although a later case carved out a narrow exception that permits a child witness to be shielded from the defendant while testifying in person, that exception applies only when a child witness would be traumatized by exposure to the accused.

When the prosecution wants to call an expert witness, the decisions in Crawford and Coy suggest that the witness will need to testify in person unless the defendant agrees to remote testimony. Expert witnesses are not children who will be traumatized by testifying in the defendant’s presence. The Confrontation Clause arguably gives defendants the right to look experts in the eye while the expert testifies.

Lower courts are nevertheless divided as to whether remote testimony in criminal cases is permissible under at least some circumstances. Courts generally agree that only circumstances implicating important policies would permit a prosecution witness to testify outside the presence of a defendant. Some courts have been willing to find that any circumstance more compelling than convenience can serve as an “important policy,” including protecting the health of a seriously ill witness.

The risk of a COVID-19 infection affects everyone who enters the courtroom, including the defendant. Since a prosecution expert will not usually be at greater risk than anyone else, it should be rare that a court will allow a prosecution expert to give remote testimony. Whether the rule is different for a defense expert witness was an issue that recently came before a judge in Yolo County, California.

Defense Expert Refuses to Testify in Person

Keith Whelan is charged in Yolo County Superior Court with multiple counts of having sex with a minor. The alleged victim reported in 2019 that the sexual contact had occurred regularly since 2016.

Whelan’s public defender asked to call two witnesses remotely. One was a social worker who had contact with the alleged victim after she made her allegations. The social worker lived in New York and did not want to travel to California to testify.

The public defender also wanted to call William O’Donohue from the University of Nevada as an expert witness. O’Donohue’s testimony was needed to respond to the anticipated testimony of Blake Carmichael, a prosecution expert who is expected to testify about child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. O’Donohue has published research that criticizes the controversial syndrome as “junk science.”

O’Donohue advised the defense that he was willing to testify by Zoom but would not travel to testify in person. O’Donohue noted that he is an older man at high risk of becoming seriously ill if he is exposed to the novel coronavirus. O’Donohue also takes care of his developmentally delayed daughter and was concerned that travel would interfere with his parental responsibilities.

The judge initially noted that he had rejected the prosecution’s request for remote testimony in a different case, in part to avoid violating the Confrontation Clause. But the Confrontation Clause protects defendants, not the government.

The prosecutor argued that O’Donohue had provided an 80-page expert report and expressed concern about the ability to cross-examine him effectively over Zoom, given the anticipated length of his testimony. The judge expressed sympathy for that position, advising the public defender that while the court could be “accommodating to him given his age, we are socially distancing and we are all masking, all jurors, lawyers, and staff.”

Court’s Ruling

The judge asked the defense to file a formal motion and delayed making a final decision until a subsequent hearing. When court next convened, the prosecutor renewed her objection, claiming that “it will be impossible for the People to conduct cross-examination in a fair way to preserve our right to a fair trial and our right to due process.”

The prosecutor may have been confused. The Constitution protects the right to due process when a person’s life, liberty, or property may be taken by the government. The Constitution was designed to protect individuals from the government, not to protect the government from defense attorneys. The defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial must always trump the government’s interest in a fair trial.

While continuing to express reservations, the judge made a conditional ruling that O’Donohue should be allowed to testify remotely. The judge recognized the importance of having a defense expert who could counter testimony given by the prosecution expert. Given the limited pool of experts and O’Donohue’s legitimate concerns about traveling during a pandemic, the court concluded that Whelan should be entitled to benefit from remote testimony.

The court left open the door for requiring in-person testimony if technical obstacles to remote testimony cannot be overcome. The court instructed the lawyers to contact the IT departments in their respective offices to determine whether the prosecution’s complaints about the limitations of Zoom can be overcome.

Perhaps using software that is specifically designed for courtroom video testimony would be a better option. The judge might also want to become familiar with best practices for using video conferencing in the courtroom. In any event, obstacles that can be overcome with even modest success should not prevent the defense from offering critical expert testimony in a criminal prosecution.

Expert Witness typography

The Best Expert Witness Qualities According to Social Science Research

The National Law Review has published an overview of social science studies that seek to answer the question of “what makes your expert witness the best expert witness?”

Purpose of the Overview

The overview was authored by Clint Townson, Ph.D., who works as a jury consultant at an expert witness search firm. Townson explained that when evaluating a potential expert witness, examining his or her credentials and experience is only half of the analysis. Towson noted that, especially when an expert is offering testimony on a complex issue, jurors tend to rely on heuristics such as credibility when evaluating expert testimony. Townson then reviewed some of the social science research on credibility, including knowledge, trustworthiness, dynamism, and likability.

Knowledge

Expert witnesses are primarily called to testify because of their knowledge, which includes educational credentials, publications, and experience. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, knowledge is also a product of “clarity in explanations, moderate assertiveness, and familiarity with the intricacies of the case.”

A 2010 study published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law noted that the best way for experts to show their knowledge is to act as teachers for the jury. Experts should aim to be consistent and coherent in their explanations, exhibit reasonable confidence in their own opinions, and demonstrate case-specific knowledge in addition to their general knowledge on the topic.

Trustworthiness

Perceived trustworthiness is a critical factor in whether a juror decides to believe an expert witness’s testimony. Experts who are patient and considerate teachers are likely to be perceived as trustworthy.

Eye contact is also important. A 2008 study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior examined the effects of eye contact on credibility and found that the expert witness’s ability to maintain eye contact with the attorneys and jurors had an effect on those expert’s credibility ratings.

Additionally, a 2000 study published in Law and Human Behavior found that the amount of pay, frequency of testifying, and level of credentials influenced jurors’ perceptions of expert’s believability.

Dynamism

Dynamism or charisma also play a factor in an expert’s credibility. According to a 2006 study published in Law & Social Inquiry, an expert’s ability to endear himself or herself to the jury is important, especially in cases where experts are asked to testify on complex issues. This can be accomplished through the use of simple terms or metaphors, the use of demonstrative examples, and remaining patient and composed through cross examination. In cases where jurors understand very little of an expert’s testimony, an expert’s dynamism combined with a show of passion for and knowledge of the subject matter may be the deciding factor.

Likability

A 1976 study published in Psychology found that likability has been tied to perceptions of trustworthiness and credibility as a whole. Jurors evaluate the likability of witnesses based upon their friendliness, the level of respect that they show, their use of informal language, and nonverbal behaviors including eye contact and vocal inflection.

 

Zoom Meeting

How to Conduct an Online Deposition of an Expert Witness

Social distancing makes cramming at least four (deposing attorney; other side’s attorney; expert witness; court reporter) and often more people into a conference room for hours on end inadvisable, even when it’s legal (i.e. when your state’s executive orders aren’t outright banning having so many unrelated persons in a room together). We don’t know how long this will go on, but smart money says that minimizing in-person contact will be with us for at least another year or more, until there’s a vaccine (knock wood). Under the current circumstances, much business — including legal business (up to and including hearings and trials) — is being conducted via Zoom or its videoconferencing equivalent. Even after a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, there are good reasons why remote depositions will often make sense, such as minimizing travel time and therefore legal and expert expenses, or being better able to accommodate various parties’ disparate schedules, and opening up the universe of potential experts to ones who are not local.

For all these reasons, deposing experts by Zoom is becoming a must-have skill for attorneys’ toolboxes. Everything not affected by not having the participants in the same room remains the same: e.g. how to qualify experts, how to lay the foundation for their deposition, the questions to ask, the usual reservation of all objections other than as to form of question, etc. That said, there are significant adjustments you’ll have to make to the usual expert deposition “script.”

Most of the additional questions or instructions come from the fact that you have less control over a remote deposition than one conducted in-person — you only see what the laptop camera sees, and so the expert could have colleagues, confederates, representatives of the opposing party, or others right there in the room with him or her, or otherwise feeding the expert answers or suggestions on an iPad or tablet or via a separate (and invisible to you) window on the computer or the expert’s phone. If you want to imagine what the expert could be up to, think about your last Zoom meeting and whether you were watching anything else, doing any work, or talking to or corresponding with anyone else while you were in the meeting. Now multiply that by 10, since the expert and the party hiring him or her has a real incentive to cheat, not just boredom causing one to multitask or seek diversions.

Additional Instructions

For You:

  • Make sure all parties share all exhibits at least two business days in advance, so they can be pre-marked.
  • Make sure that everyone, including the deponent, has a full hard copy of all exhibits in advance.
  • Test the “meeting” and the recording of it ahead of time (and not just 10 minutes before showtime; test it days or a week ahead, to allow time to work the bugs out) — nothing is worse than conducting the greatest expert deposition of your career but then finding out that nothing recorded.

For the Court Reporter: Make sure that you confirm not only that the deposition will be recorded but that the video will only show the expert being deposed. As vain as you may be, you don’t need your face muddying the videographic record.

For the Expert: The following should be stated at the outset and agreed to by the expert and also repeated or reiterated as necessary; see the “Additional Questions” below, which indicate places where you might reiterate certain instructions.

  • “The device on which you are participating, whether computer or phone, should have no other windows or applications open or running while this deposition is ongoing, unless and only if I have specifically given you permission to use other software or another application and have identified the software or application you may use.”
  • “You should not have any other computers or telecommunication devices ‘on’ and with you. Please turn off any other devices or remove them from the room during this deposition unless you identify the devices to me and I give you permission to have them with you and ‘on’.”

(In some cases — e.g. an expert who’s also a parent and needs to be reachable by his/her offsite children or their caregiver — you’ll have to allow them to have a phone with them and on. But in that case, you can ask them to position the phone so it is the camera’s field of vision, so that you can see if they are using or checking it.)

  • “You should not have any chat boxes or ‘messenger’ apps open at this time and if you do, please close them.”
  • “You should not have anyone else in the room with you during this deposition other than the party hiring you or representatives of that party, or the attorney(ies) for the party hiring you. If there is any other person or persons in the room with you, even family members, please ask them to leave at this time.”
  • “If anyone else comes into the room during this deposition, you are to notify me at once.”
  • “If you are using a laptop, tablet, or phone for this deposition, please pick it up and pan it around the room, so I can see the entirety of the room.”
  • “Please adjust the camera on the device you are using so that I can see your entire upper body, including your hands.”

Further Questions

Before you launch into anything substantive, you have to get the following questions in to protect the integrity of the process — feel free to change the exact wording to better capture your own style. Where there is something that you have to “fill in” so it’s accurate for your deposition — like the name of the software or app being used — we’ll put it in square brackets in italics.

  • “I want to confirm that we are engaged in a deposition and that we are doing so remotely; is that correct?”
  • “I also want to confirm that we are taking your deposition remotely due to [insert reason; e.g. COVID-19 and social distancing]; is that correct?”
  • “Are you aware that the parties have agreed to take your deposition remotely via [name of software or app being used]?”
  • “I want to confirm that we are using [name of software or app] to conduct your deposition; is that correct?”
  • “What kind of device are you using to participate in this deposition? Please identify it as precisely as possible.”
  • “Do you have any other windows or applications open, including but not limited to messenger apps or email?”
  • “If you have any other windows or applications open, what are they?”
  • (If they have any other windows or apps open, once they have identified them, reiterate the instruction to close them)
  • ‘Do you or anyone in the room with you have any other computer or telecommunication devices with you at this time? If so, please identify them to me.”
  • “If you have any other computers or telecommunications devices with you, are they currently ‘on’?”(If they have other devices, reiterate instructions to turn them off and/or remove them.)
  • “Has anyone asked you to have any messenger software or apps open during this deposition, and, if so, who?”
  • “Is any [insert name of software or app being used for the deposition; e.g. Zoom) ‘chatbox’ open? (Reiterate instructions to close all such software, apps, or chat boxes.)
  • “Where are you physically located? Please identify the state, county, municipality or unincorporated area, address, and the location or room within that address. Be as specific as possible.”
  • “Is anyone else physically in the room with you? If so, please identify them.”
  • “Will you immediately tell me if anyone enters or leaves the room?” (If there is anyone else in the room, reiterate instruction to have all other persons leave, unless the only other person(s) are the other party(ies) and/or the other party’s(ies’) attorney[s].)
  • “If I ask you a question, do you agree that you will not check your email, your texts, any messenger apps, any social media, or otherwise communicate with anyone — including counsel for the party hiring you or that lawyer’s client — to answer the question?”

Remember: the purpose of an expert deposition is only half exploratory — to learn what the expert knows, thinks, and will testify to. The other half is to create record which can use to pin the expert down or impeach him or her. If you don’t do that — if you don’t create a clear, unequivocal record  —you will have wasted your time and your client’s money.

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Arkansas Allows Chiropractor to Provide Expert Opinion About the Need for Surgery

The insurance industry has long disparaged the testimony of chiropractors in personal injury cases. Courts nevertheless agree that chiropractors may give expert testimony about the cause of injuries for which they provide chiropractic treatment as well as the necessity of that treatment.

Courts are less likely to agree whether chiropractors are qualified to testify about the causation of injuries for which medical treatment is provided or the necessity of that treatment. A recent decision in Arkansas rejected a blanket rule and decided that the expert’s qualifications depend on the expert.

Facts of the Case

On a rainy day in 2010, Karen Elder visited a Dollar General store in Mt. Ida, Arkansas. She slipped on the wet sidewalk outside the store’s entrance. Elder reported her fall to an assistant manager.

Elder had preexisting back pain for which she had received chiropractic treatment since 2004. After her fall, Elder had neck, back, and shoulder surgery. In 2013, she sued Dollar General for negligence, alleging that Dollar General breached its duty to maintain its premises in a safe condition.

Elder intended to have her chiropractor, Eric Carson, testify about the cause of her injuries, the permanence of her disability, and the reasonableness of her medical bills. Dollar General moved to exclude much of Dr. Carson’s testimony. The motion was denied and the case went to trial.

Trial Evidence

Elder testified that the weather was misting and that she was jogging toward the entrance to avoid getting wet. She encountered a slick area on the sidewalk and fell. She testified that the slick area was not covered by a mat and that no signs warned her that parts of the concrete sidewalk were slippery.

One portion of the sidewalk has a rough surface and is presumably not as slippery, but another portion has a smooth surface. Elder relied on a safety expert to establish that the smooth portion of the sidewalk was unreasonably dangerous and that the danger was not obvious.

A former assistant manager testified that she had slipped on the sidewalk when it was wet and that she had seen at least four other people slip. She alerted her manager and the landlord about the unsafe condition and expressed concern that it might lead to a customer injury. She was told that it would be taken care of, but no action was taken.

Over objection, Dr. Carson testified that Elder’s injuries and the medical treatment Elder received for them, including her surgeries, were caused by her fall. Dollar General offered the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon that her surgeries were related to a degenerative medical condition and not to her fall.

The jury found in Elder’s favor and returned a verdict of $700,000. Dollar General appealed, arguing that Dr. Carson was not qualified to testify that Elder’s surgery was caused by injuries she sustained in her fall.

Competence of Chiropractor to Testify About Causation

Elder supplemented its discovery responses to disclose Dr. Carson’s anticipated causation testimony. Dollar General claimed to be surprised by those opinions and asked for a continuance during the trial so it could pursue additional discovery. The supreme court agreed with the trial court that the request for a continuance came too late, given that the opinions were disclosed almost three weeks before the trial.

A more troubling question was whether Dr. Carson was competent to testify about causation. There were two related issues of causation in Elder’s case. The first is whether her fall at Dollar General caused her to suffer an injury. The second is whether the medical (as opposed to chiropractic) treatment she received was caused by injuries she suffered in the fall.

Dollar General agreed that Dr. Carson was qualified to testify that injuries he actually treated were caused by the fall and that he provided necessary treatment for those injuries. Dollar General contended that Dr. Carson was not qualified to testify about the necessity of treatment provided by medical doctors.

The supreme court disagreed with the proposition that “a chiropractor may not testify as to the causal need for surgical procedures that a chiropractor may not perform.” The Arkansas precedent upon which that argument was based held that no foundation had been laid for the chiropractor’s testimony that a patient had a permanent disability. That precedent did not establish a blanket rule.

The court decided that the admissibility of a chiropractor’s opinion requires a case-by-case assessment of a chiropractor’s training and experience. Dr. Carson had extensive training in the fields of orthopedics and neurology. The trial court was satisfied that his training in those areas was similar to the training of a medical doctor.

Dr. Carson’s experience included the treatment of hundreds of patients who suffered from traumatic injuries. He acknowledged that he does not perform surgery, but he regularly diagnoses injuries and makes an informed judgment about whether the injury would respond to chiropractic care or would be better treated by a medical doctor.

The combination of Dr. Carson’s training and experience qualified him to opine that Elder’s injuries were caused by her fall, whether or not he treated them. That he was not trained as a medical doctor went to his credibility, not to the admissibility of his causation testimony.

Competence of Chiropractor to Testify About Necessity of Treatment

Dollar General next argued that Dr. Carson was not qualified to testify about the necessity of Elder’s medical treatment. Whether surgeries were related to the fall or to preexisting conditions was an issue in the case.

The supreme court noted that the reasonableness of treatment (which must generally be established to support the inclusion of medical expenses in a verdict) was not contested. Dr. Carson might not have been qualified to testify about the reasonableness of the medical treatment, but his training and experience qualified him to testify that the medical treatment was necessary. Since he was competent to testify that the fall caused the condition for which Elder was treated, he was also competent to testify that she needed the treatment she received.

 

Expert Witness

Tennessee Requires Expert Witness in Malpractice Case to Be Licensed, Not Just Authorized to Practice

In response to lobbying by the insurance and medical industries, many states have adopted laws that make it more difficult to find expert witnesses who are permitted to testify in medical malpractice cases. Doctors who clearly have the expertise required to offer an informed opinion are precluded from testifying based on arbitrary criteria imposed by legislators who want to protect negligent doctors and their insurers from the consequences of malpractice.

Tennessee is one such state. Among other restrictions, Tennessee requires a liability expert in a medical malpractice case to have been licensed to practice and to have actually practiced medicine in Tennessee or a contiguous state during the year prior to the act that caused the patient’s injury.

Whether the licensing requirements applies to a doctor who is authorized to practice, and actually practicing, in Tennessee but exempt from licensing laws was the issue in Young v. Frist Cardiology. The Tennessee Supreme Court construed state law to require expert witnesses to be licensed even when they are authorized to practice without a license.

The Locality Rule in Malpractice Cases

In the nineteenth century, many states adopted the locality rule “to protect rural physicians from being held to the same standards as physicians working in urban areas or at academic institutions.” The locality rule requires juries to determine the standard of care in the locality where the defendant physician committed the allegedly negligent act.

Does the standard of care for treating a patient in Tennessee differs from the standard of care in Florida? There is no reason that it should, but parochial legislatures and courts are slow to recognize the need to bring the law into the current century.

The locality rule has no obvious value in the age of the internet. Rural doctors now have just as much access to modern medical techniques as urban doctors. Yet many states stubbornly cling to the antiquated rule. The Tennessee Code, for example, requires plaintiffs to prove the standard of care “in the community in which the defendant practices or in a similar community.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court has recognized the sensibility of using a national standard of care in the modern age. It has nevertheless deferred to the legislature’s 1975 adoption of the locality rule.

The locality rule restricts the range of expert witnesses who would otherwise be available to testify for the injured patient. A physician in Atlanta might be eminently qualified to testify about the appropriate standard of care for treating a health condition, but unfamiliarity with the standards followed by doctors in a small Tennessee town in which the defendant physician practiced might preclude the expert from testifying. Making it difficult to find expert witnesses is exactly the reason that laws like Tennessee’s are championed by the insurance industry.

The “Licensed to Practice” Rule

Randall Young had a procedure to correct an abnormal heart rhythm. He died from a stroke two days later. His estate sued the surgeon, alleging that the procedure should not have been performed on a patient in Young’s condition and that the surgeon failed to evaluate and monitor Young’s condition before and during surgery.

In compliance with a case management order, Young’s estate identified Dr. Jason A. Rytlewski as an expert witness who would testify about the surgeon’s deviation from the applicable standard of care. Dr. Rytlewski was an electrophysiology fellow with the Division of Cardiology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. There was no doubt that he had actual knowledge of the applicable standard of arrhythmia care in Nashville, where the surgery occurred.

Unfortunately, actual qualifications often give way to the artificial qualifications imposed by legislatures. The surgeon’s insurer argued that Dr. Rytlewski could not give admissible expert testimony because he was not licensed to practice in Tennessee or a contiguous state.

Young’s estate offered evidence that Dr. Rytlewski was licensed to practice in six states and had engaged in the practice of medicine in Tennessee during the year before Young’s death. The estate also noted that the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners had granted Dr. Rytlewski the right to practice medicine in Tennessee during his appointment at Vanderbilt. The estate argued that the licensing requirement applies only to experts who must be licensed, not to experts who are exempt from the state’s licensing law.

Appellate Decision

Notwithstanding Dr. Rytlewsksi’s exemplary qualification to act as an expert witness, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided that the legislature meant for expert witnesses to be licensed to practice, not simply allowed to practice. Of course, a license to practice allows the licensee to practice, so the distinction between being “licensed” and “allowed” to practice has no practical bearing on the expert’s qualifications.

The relevant statute applies to a “person in a health care profession requiring licensure under the laws of this state.” Although Dr. Rytlewski did not require licensure to practice in Tennessee, the court concluded that the legislature meant the words “requiring licensure” to modify the term “profession” rather than “person.”

Nothing in the structure of the sentence or ordinary rules of grammar compels that conclusion. The court’s claim that “requiring licensure” modifies the three preceding words (“health care profession”) rather than the six preceding words (“person in a health care profession”) is unsupported by precedent, grammatical rules, or logic.

The legislature’s actual purpose in enacting the law might have been to shield the medical industry from liability for negligence, but its stated purpose was to assure that expert witnesses are qualified. Reading the statute to apply only to persons who require licensure would serve that purpose and avoid the injustice of disqualifying experts who do not require licensure but are authorized to practice medicine in Tennessee.

Finding a doctor who is willing to testify against another doctor is extraordinarily difficult. Finding a doctor who is willing to testify against another doctor who practices in the same geographical area can be impossible. Legislatures that want to shield negligent doctors from liability take advantage of that difficulty by excluding eminently qualified experts who are not locally licensed. The Tennessee legislature’s rules have nothing to do with justice. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court perpetuated injustice by its doubtful reading of the Tennessee statute regarding the licensure of expert witnesses.

 

DNA

Infectious Disease Experts Will Be Critical to Lawsuits Alleging Negligent Spread of COVID 19 Infections

As the COVID-19 virus has swept the nation, lawyers are being asked whether individuals or businesses can be held liable for failing to prevent infections. Some businesses have denied employees an opportunity to work from home while asking them to sign a “voluntary” waiver of liability for infections they contract by coming to work. Since employees who fail to sign are laid off, conditioning a paycheck on the risk of acquiring an infection might be seen as coercive rather than voluntary.

Whether employers will be deemed negligent for denying work-at-home opportunities, and whether they can protect themselves from liability by conditioning future employment on a liability release, are open questions. Party-divided senators are debating whether federal legislation should protect employers from liability or whether states should be entitled to decide what has historically been a question of state law.

A clearer case of liability is posed by businesses that fail to protect patrons from infections. When outbreaks can be traced to infected servers at a restaurant, for example, the restaurant may be liable for allowing servers to handle food or interact with customers without wearing masks or gloves. How to assure the safety of patrons is a question that will grow in importance when the economy begins to reopen.

The most obvious cases of infectious disease negligence involve nursing homes and other care facilities that fail to protect patients from the spread of COVID-19. A nursing home in Hayward, California has been threatened with legal action after 25 staff members and 41 residents tested positive for a novel coronavirus infection. Nine residents died from the virus. Attorneys are investigating allegations that staff members were compelled to work despite having symptoms of a COVID-19 infection.

Nursing Home Negligence and COVID-19

There’s no doubt that nursing homes and similar healthcare facilities are in a tough position. USA TODAY reports that a minimum of “2,300 long-term care facilities in 37 states have reported positive cases of COVID-19” and that 3,000 residents have died. The actual numbers are likely higher, as some states (including Florida) did not answer USA TODAY’s request for data.

At least 127 of 163 elderly residents at a nursing home near Richmond, Virginia have fallen ill with COVID-19. At least 35 of its staff members have tested positive for the virus, leading to a staff shortage that may further endanger residents. The facility’s medical director says the nursing home was taken by surprise, although the risk of a global outbreak was widely reported by February.

Since infections spread rapidly and infected individuals are not always symptomatic, nursing homes that exercise reasonable care to protect their residents might still experience a coronavirus outbreak. Yet USA TODAY found that even before the pandemic, 75% of nursing homes had been “cited for failing to properly monitor and control infections in the past three years.”

Questions Experts Will Need to Answer

Elderly patients and individuals with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to life-threatening conditions caused by the COVID-19 virus. Whether a nursing home is responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in a vulnerable population may require experts to answer difficult questions, including:

  • What are the costs and benefits of isolating vulnerable patients during a pandemic?
  • Would prudent management require staff members to wear masks and gloves during all interactions with patients?
  • Should nursing homes stop admitting new residents to reduce population density and further the goal of social distancing?
  • What precautions should management take to assure that nurses and other staff members are not infected?
  • Should management have recognized the symptoms of a potential infection and sent potentially infected staff members home until they received a negative test result?
  • Did the facility take all necessary steps to disinfect rooms and common areas where the virus might linger?

Similar questions arise with regard to other confined settings, including jails, cruise ships, and hospitals. While preventing the spread of an infectious disease can be extraordinarily difficult, expert witnesses can determine whether certain elementary precautions — such as preventing a person with a cough from working until the employee tests negative for COVID-19 — should have been taken.

Infectious Disease Experts Making a Difference

Expert witnesses are likely to testify about COVID-19 in a variety of contexts. Lawsuits in Wisconsin, for example, allege that the failure to move the April 11 election disenfranchised voters who did not visit a crowded polling place for fear that they would acquire the virus and expose vulnerable family members to it. Infectious disease specialists and public health experts will likely be called upon to testify that those fears were legitimate.

Expert witnesses also assisted the ACLU in bringing a lawsuit seeking the release of four migrants detained by ICE in a crowded facility. Expert evidence established that the migrants had “medical conditions that make them highly vulnerable to serious illness and death if infected with COVID-19.”

The lawsuit contended that twelve detainees and one staff member had been infected with COVID-19 and that staff did not regularly wear gloves or masks to prevent the transmission of the virus. The lawsuit prompted ICE to release the detainees.

Infectious disease experts will continue play a vital role in informing the public as the pandemic continues to threaten lives. In the foreseeable future, they are likely to play critical roles as expert witnesses in litigation that holds negligent parties responsible for the preventable spread of this deadly disease.

Expert Silenced for Giving Truthful Testimony

Sexual predator laws hold defendants convicted of sex crimes in detention after they have served their sentences. The laws are premised on the popular belief that sexual predators have an uncontrollable compulsion to commit sex crimes, and that an indefinite civil commitment is an appropriate means of protecting society from the crimes they might commit in the future.

State legislatures avoid double jeopardy concerns by claiming that sexual predators are not receiving more punishment after they finish their sentences. The laws generally require that defendants who are labeled as sexual predators receive treatment, although whether any treatment can defeat an actual compulsion to commit sex crimes is a hotly debated topic.

Whether or not they receive treatment, individuals who are labeled as sexual predators are confined to institutions that in many respects are indistinguishable from prisons. The deprivation of freedom has a punishing impact even if punishment is not the law’s stated purpose.

Release from Confinement

Sexual predator laws typically allow a confined individual to petition the court for release, based on evidence that the need for confinement no longer exists. After all, if the laws are justified by the rationale that offenders have a mental disorder for which they need treatment, individuals who respond to treatment and are no longer a likely threat should not continue to be confined.

The government typically resists release by calling experts who testify that the risk persists. Offenders respond with experts who testify that there is little reason to believe the offender will commit a new sex crime.

But do the experts have the data they need to form reliable opinions? As a recent article in Reason explains, the State of California took extraordinary steps to suppress a study that would have helped expert witnesses make better judgments about the risk to society that follows the release of an offender who has been defined as a sexual predator.

Sexual Predator Laws

Before an individual can be deprived of freedom, perhaps for the rest of that person’s life, sexual predator laws require two conditions to exist. First, the alleged predator must have been convicted of a sex crime. Each state defines the specific offenses and the number of convictions that are required before sexual predator proceedings can be commenced.

Second, a court must determine that the person poses a high risk to society. While the definition of a sexual predator who should be civilly committed varies from state to state, it generally has two components: (1) the alleged predator suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that seriously impairs the ability to control sexually violent behavior, and (2) because of that disorder, the alleged predator will probably engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined.

Expert witnesses play a key role in sexual predator proceedings. Psychologists with experience evaluating sexual predators make predictions about the risk of future violence. In a typical case, separate experts testify for the government and for the alleged predator. A judge or jury then decides whether the government has met its burden of proving that the alleged predator must be confined for the safety of society.

Like too many laws, sexual predator legislation is based on fear, not on a neutral assessment of data. While offenders who commit other crimes are released after serving a sentence, public sentiment (or at least the sentiment of people whose voices are heard by legislatures) favors continuing the confinement of sex offenders on the unsupported theory that sex offenders are more likely than other criminals to commit new offenses after they are released. In fact, the data shows that most convicted sex offenders are never charged with another sex offense after they are released from prison.

Expert’s Study Undermines Premise of Sexual Predator Laws

Arguably, empirical data concerning sex offender recidivism does not capture the subset of offenders who are selected for additional confinement as sexual predators. Jesus Padilla decided to answer that question by gathering data that addressed the relevant population.

Jesus Padilla was a psychologist employed at Atascadero State Hospital in California. Padilla tracked individuals who had been confined as sexual predators and who were released without treatment after the State dropped the ball in pursuing recommitment (a process that California required at the time). Since the legal system identified those individuals as sexual predators but failed to give them treatment, Padilla expected that they would have a high rate of recidivism.

Padilla was surprised to find that five years after their release, only 6.5% of the offenders had been arrested for a new sex offense. That recidivism rate is remarkably low, considering that 49% of offenders convicted of other crimes are rearrested for a similar offense within 5 years of release.

Padilla’s Expert Testimony

In 2006, an individual confined as a sexual predator in California petitioned for release. His lawyer learned of Padilla’s study. The lawyer subpoenaed Padilla to testify as an expert witness.

The state objected that Padilla’s publicly funded research was confidential, a silly claim that the judge rejected. To protect the privacy of individuals who were studied, the judge limited Padilla to giving a summary of his findings.

Padilla’s research called into question the rationale for sexual predator confinements. Because he is honest, however, Padilla gave honest testimony about his research results. It turned out that honest expert testimony did not sit well with the State of California.

Expert Silenced for Telling the Truth

Like the prison industry, the sexual predator industry is a substantial employer. California spends more than $300 million a year on its sexual predator program. State employees depend on courts filling institutions with sexual predators so that they will continue to draw state paychecks. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that, with their jobs on the line, employees of the department responsible for confining sexual predators resisted Padilla’s conclusions.

It is surprising, however, that California chose to silence Padilla rather than criticizing his study or funding larger studies to determine whether his results could be replicated. According to a law review article that examined Padilla’s research, Padilla’s study was “halted in midcourse” after he testified. Reason explains that Padilla’s “records were confiscated, his hard copies were shredded, and he was forbidden to talk about his work.” His boss accused him of illegally accessing conviction data, a bogus charge that was dismissed after an independent investigation concluded that it was groundless. Padilla’s efforts to restart the research were consistently rejected.

The law professors who investigated Padilla’s case made a Freedom of Information Act request for the research data. The state responded with a shocking claim that it could not verify that Padilla had ever conducted a study. The law professors then confronted the state with documents proving that the study had been approved and funded. At that point, the state was forced to turn over the data. However, when Padilla inspected the data, he discovered that someone had tampered with the Excel files by carving up spreadsheets and rendering them useless. He also discovered that the data was incomplete.

Censoring an expert and suppressing an expert’s research because the expert’s findings are unwelcome is a shameful response to honest research. As Reason notes, authorities in California apparently prefer to adhere to their “unexamined assumptions” rather than considering evidence that might contradict the foundations of their work.

The law professors concluded that after Padilla testified, the state “may have realized the study had to be stopped because it threatened the legitimacy of the entire [sexual predator] program.” Nothing could be more antithetical to the honest research and expert analysis upon which the legal system depends than suppressing knowledge that undermines the basis for depriving individuals of their freedom.

 

Memories

Are You Thinking About Becoming an Expert Witness?

In this time of economic uncertainty, a part-time gig as an expert witness might provide helpful supplementary income. Almost anyone who has knowledge or training in a specialized field that exceeds the knowledge of most people has the potential to be an expert witness. At the same time, some people are more suited for the role of expert witness than others.

Individuals with degrees in engineering, accounting, psychology, and a variety of scientific disciplines regularly appear as expert witnesses. They explain or refute the economic and emotional losses claimed by plaintiffs. They analyze the likelihood that a defendant’s conduct did or didn’t harm a plaintiff. Medical experts testify about the nature and degree of injuries or disabilities.

In intellectual property cases, experts explain how a new invention or song is similar to or different from a patented invention or a copyrighted song. Experts in real estate valuation offer opinions about the value of real property. Experts in all kinds of personal property, from classic cars to comic book collections, offer opinions about the value of property that has been lost or damaged.

In criminal cases, expert witnesses who are employed by the government offer forensic or “criminalistics” testimony. The criminal defense bar hires experts to refute that testimony, often by pointing out the uncertain foundations upon which it is built.

Would You Be a Good Expert?

Not every field of expertise requires a degree. An auto mechanic who has serviced cars for many years might be well qualified to explain that a brake failure was the likely cause of an accident. An experienced roofer is well positioned to explain the cause of a leaky roof in a newly purchased home.

On the other hand, people often consider themselves to be experts despite having little more knowledge in a field than the average person. When experts in a field typically have specialized training, a court is unlikely to regard an expert as qualified in that field unless the expert can prove that he or she has the same training or experience that other members of the field commonly possess. Things do not go well for purported experts who try to fool a court by falsifying their credentials.

While specialized knowledge is essential, an expert witness must also be able to express that knowledge, both in writing and in testimony. In federal cases and in many state courts, a retained expert must prepare a written report. A witness who cannot prepare a report that states and supports opinions in clear language will have difficulty finding work.

Expert witnesses are often called upon to testify in depositions. Since most cases settle, they less frequently testify in court, but experts are sometimes called upon to give trial testimony. People who are nervous about speaking in front of a small group of people might not be good trial witnesses. People who are short-tempered or impatient will not respond well to cross-examination. Good expert witnesses have the ability to think on their feet, to answer complex questions in language that juries can understand, and to earn the respect of lawyers, judges, and juries by giving honest answers to difficult questions.

Expert Witnesses Are Not Hired Guns

Advocacy organizations that complain about “judicial hellholes” have tried to undermine the credibility of retained experts. To make it harder for plaintiffs to prevail in lawsuits against insurance companies and corporations, they have tried to spread the message that experts are “hired guns” who will say anything in exchange for a paycheck.

The truth is that most expert witnesses give honest opinions, whether they have been hired by a plaintiff or a defendant. They analyze the facts and arrive at conclusions that are supported by the evidence. While they are conscious of the goals a client hopes to achieve, they do not bend the truth to help a client win a case.

Experts who are “hired guns” in the sense that they offer unsupported or irrational opinions quickly lose credibility in the legal community. They become vulnerable to cross-examination. They risk having a judge reject their reports and bar their testimony because they offer opinions that no jury could regard as reasonable.

While expert witnesses can and should earn income by providing services to lawyers and their clients, the best motivation to become an expert witness is a desire to help jurors understand the facts of a case. Honest and ethical experts can enjoy a long and fruitful career as expert witnesses.

Only an Expert Can Testify that a Patented Invention Was Obvious

One defense to a patent infringement lawsuit is that the patent should not have been granted because the patented invention is based on an obvious modification of existing ideas. The issue in HVLPO2, LLC v. Oxygen Frog, LLC was whether a lay witness could testify about the obviousness of an invention. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that expert testimony is often required to establish obviousness.

Facts of the Case

The two patents at issue involved a device that manages the flow of oxygen gas mixtures to torches used by glass artists. There was no question that Oxygen Frog infringed two patents held by HVLP02. The only question at trial was whether the device used a method for controlling the flow of oxygen that would have been obvious to a person with ordinary skill in the field in light of existing ideas and technology.

To establish that the technology underlying the patents was a matter of public knowledge before the patents were issued, Oxygen Frog pointed to a blog post on a glass blowing internet forum that described an oxygen system. That system was similar to the patented device, but it involved a single circuit while the patented device used two circuits, one to provide power to oxygen generators and the second to provide power to an air compressor.

Oxygen Frog also pointed to a video that was posted online by Tyler Piedbes, a glass blowing artist. Oxygen Frog deposed Piedbes and played most of the deposition for the jury. Oxygen Frog did not offer Piedbes as an expert witness.

Piedbes was asked whether he thought adding a second circuit to the oxygen system described online was an obvious modification. HVLPO2 objected that Piedbes was not offering admissible lay testimony because an opinion about obviousness could only be provided by an expert witness. The trial judge overruled the objection and Piedbes answered “yes.”

The court instructed the jury that Piedbes could offer an opinion as to whether the modification “would occur to him from his perspective” and whether the modification was obvious. The court also instructed the jury that it was to make its own determination of obviousness.

The jury decided the obviousness question in favor of Oxygen Frog. HVLPO2 appealed. It contended on appeal that Piedbes’ testimony was inadmissible because he did not testify as an expert.

Appellate Opinion

Obviousness is not analyzed from the perspective of an ordinary person. Rather, the question is whether the patented invention modified an existing invention or technology in a way that would have been obvious to a person of ordinary skill in the relevant field (“a person of skill in the art,” in the language of patent law).

The Court of Appeals noted that it “is often helpful to have a technical expert explain, for example, the scope of the prior art or motivations for combining various components.” That explanation cannot typically be provided by a lay witness, because explanations of facts that are beyond the knowledge of ordinary jurors can only be made by expert witnesses. A person who is not an expert in the relevant “art” cannot usually assist the jury’s determination of obviousness.

Priebes might have been an expert, but he did not testify as an expert. He was not disclosed as an expert witness and did not prepare an expert report. The appellate court rejected the argument that Priebes was entitled to provide lay testimony about obvious modifications of oxygen system that had been described online. That testimony was “the province of qualified experts, not lay witnesses.”

Oxygen Frog argued that Priebes’ testimony, even if inadmissible, did not harm HVLPO2. Of course, Oxygen Frog only called Priebes as a witness because it hoped his testimony would influence the outcome. The Court of Appeals noted that the jury may have relied entirely on Priebes’ testimony when it decided the question of obviousness.

The trial court’s limiting instruction did not cure the error because it expressly allowed the jury to consider Priebes’ inadmissible opinion. In addition, HVLPO2 could not make a Daubert challenge to test the reliability of Priebes’ testimony since Priebes was not designated as an expert. Under those circumstances, the failure to designate Priebes as an expert could not be dismissed as harmless error. HVLP02 was therefore entitled to a new trial.

 

Covering the Cost of Experts in Utah Jail Death Cases

In Utah, expert witnesses play important roles in the civil court cases that are fought over jail deaths.  Who pays for these experts?  That depends on if you’re a plaintiff or a defendant.

The Government Indemnity Pool

In the State of Utah, there is a government indemnity pool that pays for civil defense attorneys and expert witnesses when a death occurs in a jail.

The Ogden, Utah-based Standard-Examiner daily newspaper recently took a look at how the government indemnity pool works and how it may cause the government to have an advantage over plaintiffs in civil jail death cases.

Funding the Government Indemnity Pool

The Utah Counties Indemnity Pool was created by the Utah Government as a public agency insurance mutual.  The pool allows counties to combine resources to cover legal expenses and other losses.  Individual counties pay “law enforcement liability contributions” to this fund each year.  For example, thus far in 2020, Box Elder County has paid $125,025 into the fund, Davis County has paid $325,065 into the fund, Morgan County has paid $16,670 into the fund, and Weber County has paid $396,746 into the fund.  The amount that each county owes is based upon the total number of law enforcement personnel that it employs.

According to the data that the pool shared with Transparent Utah, the pool paid out more than $2.5 million to cover losses, including settlements, and payments to attorneys in 2019.

Miller and Hayes Deaths

In December 2017, Gregory Leigh Hayes, 33, died of a prescription drug overdose after being booked into the Davis County Jail.  His mother, Susan Johnson, filed a wrongful death suit, arguing that the jail should have had him checked by a doctor before putting him in a holding cell.

In December 2016, Heather Miller, 28, died of a severely ruptured spleen after falling from her cell’s top bunk.  Her mother, Cynthis Farnham-Stella, sued Davis County for damages and an injunction requiring better medical care for inmates.

Dr. Kennon Tubbs was retained by Davis County as the chief expert witness in both the Miller and Hayes suits.  Dr. Tubbs is the contract medical director for 11 county jails in Utah and Wyoming and formerly practiced medicine at the Utah State Prison for 13 years.  Dr. Tubbs’ rate sheet indicates that he receives $500 per hour or $3,500 per day for his expert witness fee.  Dr. Tubbs’ expert witness fee comes out of the Utah Counties Indemnity Pool.

Less Options for Plaintiffs

Tad Draper, one of the attorneys who is representing the families of Hayes and Miller in their suits, told the Standard that hiring expert witnesses can be more challenging for plaintiffs.  He explained that expert witness fees can range from $200 to $500 per hour.  Draper said that lawyers will typically front the expense of expert witnesses, and cover those costs if they lose the case.  He explained, “In most cases worth pursuing, a lawyer takes the risk,”