Category Archives: Working with Experts

Courtroom

Screening Experts for Conflicts of Interest and Bias

Lawyers must consider several factors when they choose an expert witness. The expert’s qualifications, reputation, and ability to communicate effectively are key considerations. The expert’s location and the lawyer’s budget are practical issues.

The potential for a conflict of interest is a factor that lawyers tend to forget. Fortunately, actual conflicts are rare. Experts are also challenged on the basis that she or he show a clear bias for the party that hired them. While those challenges are not usually successful, lawyers need to think about the issue of bias before retaining an expert witness.

Courts are reluctant to disqualify experts based on perceived conflicts or claims of bias. Courts tend to view those issues as going to credibility rather than admissibility. 

Even if a potential conflict does not bar an expert from testifying, lawyers want to hire credible experts. Lawyers need to consider possible challenges to an expert’s credibility based on perceived conflicts or allegations of bias. Screening experts for conflicts and bias should therefore be part of the lawyer’s assessment of potential experts.

Prior Work for an Adverse Party

Courts have the power to exclude an expert’s testimony when the expert has provided services to the opposing party. Courts exercise their power to bar the testimony of an expert who has “switched sides” when they deem it necessary “to protect the integrity of the adversary process, protect privileges that otherwise may be breached, and promote public confidence in the legal system.” 

Whether the expert will be disqualified generally depends on whether the expert received confidential information from the party that is relevant to the current lawsuit. A lawyer’s mental impression of the strengths and weaknesses of relevant claims against that lawyer’s client is an example of confidential information.

When there is a dispute about the expert’s receipt of confidential information, courts ask whether it was reasonable for the adverse party to believe that it had entered into a confidential relationship with the expert. If so, they examine the evidence to decide whether confidential information was actually shared with the expert.

Lawyers need to balance the risk of conflict against the reality that hiring an expert who was once retained by the opposing party may be advantageous. An expert’s willingness to work for both sides might be seen as evidence of the expert’s impartiality. Of course, it might also be seen as evidence that the expert is a “hired gun,” but that is a challenge facing every expert in every case.

When an expert has worked for the adverse party, lawyers nevertheless need to be wary. There is always a risk that the opposing party will claim that it shared confidential information with the expert. A lawyer will need to explore the expert’s relationship with the opposing party in detail and will need to assess the risk that the expert might be disqualified. If that risk is significant, the lawyer should consider whether conflict-free experts with similar qualifications are available.

The screening process should start by asking the expert whether she has any past experience with the adverse party or its lawyers. Conducting an online search for cases in which the expert testified will provide at least partial confirmation that the expert has no conflict. Still, since experts do not always testify and since it is difficult to learn of past employment as consulting experts, it is important to have a candid conversation with a potential expert witness about any contact the expert has had with an opposing party, even if the expert did not testify for that party.

Bias

Bias is often alleged by an opposing party. An expert’s consistent employment by a particular industry or group of litigants might give rise to claims of bias, but those claims are attacks on credibility that juries should resolve.

Bias may also be reflected in unreliable methodologies or a selective application of facts. Courts might disqualify experts for bias indirectly by applying the Daubert standard more strictly when there is evidence that bias may have affected the reliability of an expert’s conclusions.

Some courts have suggested that experts who base opinions on experiments or research done outside the context of litigation are more likely to produce reliable results than experts who are hired by a particular industry or group to form opinions that are specific to a lawsuit. After Daubert was remanded to the Ninth Circuit, Judge Kozinski wrote that “experts whose findings flow from existing research are less likely to have been biased toward a particular conclusion by the promise of remuneration; when an expert prepares reports and findings before being hired as a witness, that record will limit the degree to which he can tailor his testimony to serve a party’s interests.” 

That line of thought suggests that courts might be more inclined to exclude experts when they have not conducted research or expressed opinions about a particular subject before they are hired to present expert testimony. Selecting an expert who has researched a scientific question outside the context of litigation might therefore avoid claims of bias.

Still, the fact that an expert has not conducted research prior to being retained does not mean that the expert’s methodology will be tainted by bias. Courts are more likely to be troubled when, for example, an expert prepares peer-reviewed writings and fails to disclose “her potential bias because of her direct involvement in litigation in the . . . cases on which she reported.” 

Experts may also demonstrate bias when they prepare reports that contradict prior writings or testimony given in other cases if the contradictions cannot be explained by the differing facts that the expert considered. To screen against potential claims of bias, lawyers should always review an expert’s past writings and testimony to determine whether it might conflict with opinions the expert will be asked to express.

Late Disclosure of Underlying Data Does Not Bar Damages Expert from Testifying

Plaintiffs in wrongful death cases routinely ask expert witnesses to compute the loss of the victim’s anticipated contributions to a family. The experts generally rely on past earnings as part of their analysis. Whether the belated disclosure of that data renders an expert’s opinions unreliable or otherwise requires exclusion of the expert’s opinion was the issue in a recent federal case in the District of Nevada.

Facts of the Case

Nickles and Dimes, Inc., a company that owns and operates amusement arcades in shopping malls, employed Charles Wyman as a route manager. Wyman was electrocuted while servicing a “claw” game machine in Las Vegas. The machine was manufactured by and purchased from Smart Industries Corporation. 

Unbeknownst to Wyman, the claw machine was electrically charged because a power wire and a grounding wire inside the machine were reversed. Wyman was in contact with the electrified machine for about ten minutes before a firefighter unplugged it. Wyman died without recovering consciousness.

Wyman’s estate, several of his surviving family members, and the company that insured Nickles and Dimes filed lawsuits against Smart and other entities for wrongful death. All of the lawsuits were eventually removed to federal court and consolidated. 

Some claims have been settled or dismissed. The remaining liability question is whether the claw machine left the factory in a defective condition. The disputed damages issue relates to lost financial support arising from Wyman’s death.

Expert Report

Terrence Clauretie prepared a preliminary expert report on behalf of the Wyman family members. His report calculated the financial support Wyman would have contributed to his family if he had not died. That report was disclosed within the time set by the court’s scheduling order.

Years after the preliminary report was filed, Smart moved to strike Clauretie as an expert witness. Smart complained that the expert report was incomplete when it was filed because Clauretie did not produce income records in support of the report. Smart also complained that the family members did not provide income records in discovery and that the income information Clauretie reviewed was so vaguely described that Smart could not “discern with certainty” the information he received. 

The family members responded that the preliminary report made clear that it was based on incomplete information and that additional information would be provided later. The preliminary report stated that the final calculation was unlikely to differ significantly from the preliminary calculation. 

After discovery closed, Clauretie received tax information from 2011 to 2013 and prepared a supplemental report that included a final estimate of loss. The final estimate did not differ from the preliminary estimate. 

Smart’s Objections

Smart premised its motion to strike on the argument that a preliminary report does not contain a “complete statement” of all the expert’s opinions as required by Rule 26(a)(2)(B). It also argued that Clauretie’s preliminary report did not include all facts and data he considered or exhibits that would be used to support his opinions.

Smart also objected that Clauretie based his report on statistical data regarding average households rather than Wylie’s actual income. That methodology, in Smart’s review, is unreliable and rendered his opinion speculative.

Smart conceded that Clauretie may have reviewed tax information before he prepared his preliminary opinion but complained that it did not know what information he reviewed. Smart asked the court to strike Clauretie as an expert witness because it could not conduct meaningful discovery of the facts that supported his final opinion.

Reliability Is a “Flexible Concept”

The district court reviewed Clauretie’s opinions for relevance and reliability. Clauretie’s calculation of lost financial support was obviously relevant to an award of damages in a wrongful death case. 

Unlike judges who view themselves as the ultimate authority on reliability, the court recognized that its job was not to determine whether the expert’s opinions are sound but whether the expert used a sound methodology to arrive at those opinions.

The court also recognized that reliability is “a flexible concept.” The court recognized that experts are not required to use a perfect methodology, or even the best methodology. Experts have discretion to choose among various reliable methodologies. Whether that choice affects the reliability of their opinions is for the jury to decide.

The district defined its gatekeeping role as screening out “nonsense opinions.” It is not the court’s job to reject impeachable opinions. Unless the expert “lacks good grounds” for an opinion, it is opposing counsel’s job to expose weaknesses in the expert’s analysis through cross-examination, and it is the jury’s job to decide whether to accept or reject the opinion. 

Reliability of Clauretie’s Opinions

The court rejected the argument that Clauretie failed to identify the facts upon which he based his opinion. The preliminary report identified the substantial information upon which it was based, including Clauretie’s review of tax returns from 2014 and 2015.

The court also rejected Smart’s claim that it never received those tax returns. The returns were attached to a disclosure that the plaintiffs filed but later withdrew after Smart objected that it was filed after the discovery deadline expired. The court did not allow Smart to pretend that it never received the tax returns. Since discovery was later reopened, Smart could have asked to depose Clauretie concerning his reliance on those tax returns. 

The preliminary report indicated that earlier tax returns were not likely to change Clauretie’s opinion significantly. After Clauretie received the 2011 to 2013 tax returns, he prepared a brief supplemental report and confirmed that the additional data did not change his calculation. Nothing in that sequence of events, including the belated disclosure of the 2014 and 2015 tax returns, rendered Clauretie’s opinion unreliable.

Late Disclosure

The court also considered whether the belated filing of Clauretie’s supplemental report justified striking him as an expert witness. Rule 26 requires expert reports to be filed within the time designated by the court. While Rule 26(e) permits supplemental reports, that rule does not create a loophole that permits experts to file incomplete reports before the disclosure deadline.

Rule 37 generally requires the exclusion at trial of opinions and data not included in the report that Rule 26 requires.  The court recognized that the rule nevertheless permits relief from its “harsh requirements” when a failure to disclose was substantially justified or harmless. In addition, the rule authorizes the court to impose sanctions that are less harsh than the exclusion of evidence.

Different judges apply Rule 37 in different ways. Judges who take a mechanistic approach require strict adherence to deadlines and believe that courts should rarely decline to exclude expert evidence when the rule is violated. Judges who believe that cases should usually be decided on their merits by juries, not by judges as a sanction for rules violations, are more inclined to exercise their discretion to avoid harsh results.

The court agreed that the plaintiffs offered no satisfactory explanation for their late production of either set of tax returns. While the belated disclosure might not have been entirely harmless, if only because the delayed resolution of a case is theoretically harmful to the administration of justice, the court decided that “the public policy favoring disposition of cases on their merits and the availability of less drastic sanctions” weighed against striking Clauretie as an expert witness.

While Smart did not benefit from timely production of the tax returns, it did receive the preliminary expert report on time. That report incorporated a number of exhibits and explained how Clauretie arrived at his opinions. Smart had the tax returns before discovery was reopened. It manufactured its own prejudice by failing to take Cluaretie’s deposition so it could question him about the tax returns. Nor did Smart move to compel disclosure of the tax returns.

The court noted that Smart was not required to take Clauretie’s deposition or to move to compel disclosure of documents that Rule 26 requires to be produced. At the same time, Smart was not in a position to argue that it was harmed when it knew of Clauretie’s opinions, had his report, and had the opportunity to depose him. Smart could not claim to have been surprised by Clauretie’s opinions since they did not change from the time the preliminary report was filed. Since Smart received the tax returns before a trial date had even been set, the exclusion of Clauretie’s testimony would be an unduly harsh sanction.

The court decided that a lesser sanction than exclusion was appropriate. It allowed Smart to take Clauretie’s deposition and required the Wymans to pay all expenses associated with it. It also required the Wymans to pay attorneys’ fees associated with the motion to strike.

Lessons Learned

The district court judge wisely avoided a knee-jerk response to belated discovery disclosures. The judge’s ruling was tailored to the lack of harm associated with the late disclosure. 

Lawyers should understand that some judges are more concerned with enforcing their scheduling orders than with producing just results. Experts and the lawyers who hire them should always do their utmost to either (1) produce reports and data relied upon to support opinions by the date set in the court’s scheduling order, or (2) move for an extension of time to produce that data with a showing of good cause for the delay. Violating a rule and hoping that the judge will not impose a harsh sanction is never a good strategy.

Zoom Meeting

The Psychological Impact of Remote Testimony on Expert Witnesses

The latest pandemic surge is causing a new round of trial delays and courthouse closures in some parts of the country. Lawyers can only guess when the “new normal” will arrive. Defining a post-pandemic “normal” may be just as challenging as working during a pandemic.

Remote deposition testimony has become common. It took time for lawyers and court reporters to work the kinks out of remote deposition technology and procedures, but most lawyers have adjusted to the change. Whether remote depositions should continue after the pandemic is a subject of debate. Positions may change from case to case, depending on whether a remote deposition is likely to be helpful or harmful to the lawyer’s client.

Courts have routinely conducted hearings remotely, although permitting a trial witness to testify from a remote location is less common. The federal rule permits remote trial testimony in civil cases “for good cause in compelling circumstances and with appropriate safeguards.” Whether the pandemic constitutes good cause or compelling circumstances is a question that courts decide on a case-by-case basis.

Procedural rules in arbitration tend to be more relaxed than court rules. While the rules that govern arbitration proceedings differ, the most common sets of rules vest the arbitrator with considerable discretion to take testimony remotely. 

Impact on Expert Witnesses

Lawyers view remote testimony in terms of strategy. They might not give much thought to the psychological impact of remote testimony upon a testifying expert. A report by the Berkeley Research Group examines “the possible psychological impact of different ‘hearing’ environments” upon participants in arbitration proceedings, including expert witnesses. BRG is a global consulting firm that provides services to clients in a variety of industries.

The report is based on interviews with participants in arbitration hearings that used remote technology. After spending a few months overcoming glitches in that technology, participants generally developed a favorable impression of remote hearings.

Expert witnesses, in particular, had a positive response to remote hearings. Testifying from the expert’s home or office places experts at ease. The experts believed that the familiar setting allowed them to consider questions more thoughtfully, free from the distractions that are inevitable in a crowded conference room or courtroom.

The report also highlights the perceived benefit of “the additional virtual barrier between the expert witness providing evidence and those tasked with cross-examination.” The report suggests that attempts “to place pressure on and unnerve” expert witnesses were less effective when the lawyer could not confront the witness in a face-to-face setting. It’s difficult to badger a witness from afar.

Experts who testify in person may feel bullied by aggressive cross-examination tactics. While remote testimony may be a disadvantage for lawyers who want to rattle experts during cross-examination, it is fair to ask whether intimidation is a tactic that promotes just results. A witness might be more likely to give thoughtful and reasoned answers when aggressive cross-examination tactics are offset by distance.

On the other hand, comfort cuts both ways. When a cross-examining lawyer cannot intimidate a witness, a better tactic may be to lull the witness into a false sense of security. Remote testimony can seem like a one-on-one conversation between the witness and the lawyer. Witnesses may be tempted to say too much, forgetting the standard admonition to answer only the question that was asked and not to volunteer information.

Preparing the Expert for Remote Testimony 

Experts also noted that in-person depositions are usually accompanied by in-person meetings with the lawyer who prepares them to testify. Experts found that meeting in person results in more thorough preparation. A mock cross-examination is more likely to build confidence when it is conducted in person. Preparing in person also contributes to strong communication and reduces the risk that the expert and the lawyer who retained the expert will not be on the same page when the expert testifies. 

The report suggests that experts and lawyers both benefit from meeting in person to prepare the expert’s testimony. Even when a hearing or deposition is conducted remotely, it may be sensible to meet in person when the time comes to prepare the expert to testify.

Psychologists have identified “Zoom fatigue” as a potential drawback of remote proceedings. Staring at a screen is less engaging than watching witnesses testify in person. An arbitrator’s mind might start to wander after hours of watching an expert give less-than-scintillating testimony about technical issues. Lawyers should keep “zoom fatigue” in mind by breaking up lengthy hearing testimony into a series of shorter answers to help keep the judge or arbitrator engaged.

Impact on Outcomes

Study participants were divided in their opinion about the impact of remote testimony on hearing outcomes. Some believed that the hearing environment has an impact on the decision-making process. Most participants believed that the professionalism of judges, lawyers, and expert witnesses overcomes the disadvantages of remote testimony.

Expert witnesses did not view remote testimony as changing the nature of their testimony or the way that testimony would be perceived. Experts believed they had adapted to remote testimony with ease.

The key takeaway from the BRG report is that expert witnesses benefit from in-person preparation even when they testify remotely. Lawyers may have a better outcome when they meet with an expert witness in person to prepare the expert’s testimony.

Expert Witness typography

Court Requires Dual-Hat Expert to Produce Materials He Created as a Consulting Expert

Some lawsuits repeatedly showcase the nuances of the federal rules governing expert testimony. The multi-district litigation involving C.R. Bard’s mesh products has produced multiple rulings that offer guidance to lawyers who rely on expert testimony in federal court. The latest ruling sheds light on the circumstances under which dual-hat experts must disclose the materials they prepare when they form opinions.

Facts of the Case

Steven Johns is one of thousands of plaintiffs who sued C.R. Bard after suffering injuries allegedly caused by defects in the company’s polypropylene hernia mesh products. Those lawsuits have been joined in multidistrict litigation. Johns’ lawsuit is the first “bellwether” case that will be tried. Last year, an ExpertPages blog discussed the court’s decision to admit the testimony of Johns’ causation expert.

Johns contends that the company’s Ventralight ST mesh device is defective. The mesh was implanted in Johns to repair a hernia. Johns had a gap in the layer of connective tissue called the fascia. The mesh implant was intended to close that gap.

One side of the Ventralight ST mesh is coated. The side with “ST coating” is placed against an organ, such as the patient’s bowels. The uncoated polypropyIene side is placed over the gap in the fascia. 

The coating is intended to delay resorption of the mesh into the organ. The plaintiffs allege that the mesh resorbs too quickly, exposing organs to damage caused by the bare polypropylene. Johns alleges that after his hernia repair, he developed adhesions in a fatty structure associated with the bowel called the omentum. Johns attributes the adhesions to the defective mesh.

Competing Expert Testimony

Bard intends to present the expert testimony of Stephen Badylak, who examined photomicrographs of slides from Bard’s clinical animal study on the Ventralight ST. Bard wants Badylak to testify that the ST coating remained on the mesh device 28 days after it is implanted. The testimony is arguably important because the plaintiffs contend that the coating was generally gone within a week.

The plaintiffs had hired Tamas Nagy to conduct a similar analysis. Nagy reviewed slides from the animal study, took photomicrographs of the slides, reviewed them using a score sheet (as did Badylak), and made notes of his findings. After consulting with Nagy, the plaintiffs represented that Nagy would not offer any expert opinions.

Nagy did not prepare an expert report. On that basis, the defendants moved to strike him as an expert. The parties disputed whether the plaintiffs properly redesignated Nagy as a consulting rather than a testifying expert. The court took no immediate action on the motion to strike Nagy.

In a second supplemental expert report, Badylak advanced his opinion about the presence of ST coating after 28 days of implantation. The plaintiffs challenged the admissibility of Badylak’s opinion. The court determined that Badylak’s methodology was sufficiently reliable to permit his testimony.

The court also allowed the plaintiffs to call Nagy as a rebuttal expert to challenge Badylak’s conclusion that coating remained after 28 days. Based on that ruling, the court denied the motion to strike Nagy as an expert.

Nagy re-reviewed the slides and prepared a rebuttal expert report. When Bard deposed him, he failed to produce materials related to his initial review of the slides, including his photomicrographs, notes, and score sheets. Bard then paused the deposition and moved to compel production of those materials.

Motion to Compel

The court began with the proposition that an opposing party is entitled to production of all materials “considered” by an expert before or while forming an expert opinion, whether or not the expert relies on those materials in the expert’s report. An expert “considers” materials when the expert receives, reads, reviews, or authors those materials, provided that their subject matter relates to the opinions that the expert expresses. The party resisting disclosure bears the burden of showing that the expert did not consider the materials.

Nagy testified that he re-reviewed the photomicrographs before he produced his rebuttal report. He therefore “considered” them in connection with the opinions he formed. There seems to be little dispute that Nagy’s photomicrographs were discoverable.

Nagy authored his notes and score sheets. Since those documents relate to the general subject matter of the opinions Nagy expressed in his rebuttal report, the court began by asking whether the plaintiffs met their burden of showing that Nagy did not consider them in reaching the opinions he expressed.

Nagy testified that he did not need to re-score the score sheets when he formed his rebuttal opinion. The court did not regard Nagy’s testimony as a denial that he considered the original score sheets when he formed the opinions expressed in his rebuttal report. In any event, an expert’s denial that he considered certain data or facts does not control the dispute because the defendants are not required to believe an expert’s testimony. 

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that Nagy made the notes and score sheets during his initial review for an unrelated purpose — to examine the degree of inflammatory response in the tissue. Nagy’s rebuttal report discussed inflammatory response as evidence that the ST coating was or was not present on the mesh, suggesting that his first and second review did not address entirely different subjects. Ambiguity about the scope of the first analysis made the notes and score sheets discoverable.

Work Product Objections

The plaintiffs also resisted production of the notes and score sheets on the ground that they are not discoverable “facts and data.” The plaintiffs argued that the notes and score sheets contain Nagy’s interpretation of and commentary about the slides he reviewed and are thus work product that is protected from discovery. 

The court declined to make an expert’s thought processes “categorically undiscoverable.” Nagy testified that the notes represented his visual observations of the slides. Since “visual observation” was the testing process that Nagy employed, the court did not see how else Nagy could capture the presence or absence of the characteristics he observed. The notes and score sheets were therefore discoverable “facts and data.” 

To the extent that the attorney work-product privilege protects communications between an expert and an attorney, it does not extend to an expert’s own development of the opinions he expressed. The attorney work-product privilege protects an attorney’s mental impressions, not those of an expert. Since no attorney’s mental impressions or legal theories were reflected in the score sheets or notes, they were not entitled to work-product protection.

Dual Hat Expert

Perhaps the most meaningful challenge to the production of Nagy’s notes and score sheets was rooted in the notion that Nagy was a consulting expert when he created those materials and only became a testifying expert when it became necessary to rebut Badylak’s report. A non-testifying, consulting expert is generally immune from discovery. Redesignation as a testifying expert does not cause a loss of immunity as to materials that were considered “uniquely” in the expert’s role as a consultant.

The court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to carry their burden of demonstrating that Nagy prepared his original notes and score sheets “uniquely” in his role as a consulting expert. The court did not believe that Nagy could “draw a line in the sand” between information he considered in a consulting context and information he considered when he formed his rebuttal opinions. Given the similarity of the subject matter that Nagy was asked to draw conclusions about as a consultant and later as a testifying witness, and given that his conclusions in each instance were based on a review of the same slides, the court thought it likely that Nagy’s score sheets and notes were not “unique” to the work he performed as a consulting expert. 

gun and bullets

California Court Limits Admissible Testimony of Ballistics Expert

Tuala Auimatagi is accused of committing two murders in August 2019. The first charge involves a drive-by shooting in West Sacramento. The second shooting took place a week later in Richmond, California. Both victims were shot with a rifle.

No eyewitness identified Auimatagi as the shooter in West Sacramento. The only eyewitness to the Richmond shooting was the victim’s girlfriend. She told a police detective that Auimatagi broke into her home to retrieve a handgun that she had given to the victim. The victim’s girlfriend claimed she saw Auimatagi shoot the victim. However, the girlfriend died before the case went to court, leaving the prosecution with no eyewitness.

The prosecution was able to use the girlfriend’s hearsay statement at a preliminary hearing. Based on that statement, the court found that there was probable cause to charge Auimatagi with the Richmond homicide.

Forensic Expert’s Opinion

Images from street cameras established that Auimatagi was in a black BMW on nearby roads in West Sacramento on the day of the first shooting. The prosecution relied on the expert testimony of Alex Taflya to link Auimatagi to that shooting.

Taflya is a forensic expert employed by the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office. He compared the bullets that killed both victims. Tayfla testified that the two bullets shared markings that suggested they were fired from the same firearm. However, Tayfla could not evaluate the firearm and therefore could not be certain that the bullets were fired from the same gun.

Tayfla testified that, assuming the similar markings were not made by characteristics that are common to the same make and model of firearm, they were fired by the same gun. In the court’s view, Taflya’s testimony was sufficient to establish probable cause to support the prosecution’s charging decision. Whether that testimony would be admissible at trial was a separate question.

Subclass Markings

Fans of the CSI series might believe that ballistics is a rigorous science. A critique of firearms identification prepared by a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) in fact been described ballistics as “part science and part art form.”

Markings are made on bullets as they travel through the barrel of a gun. Some of those markings (known as class characteristics) might be made by thousands of firearms of a particular model and manufacturer. Other markings (known as individual characteristics) are made by particular guns and may be unique to an individual gun.

In a middle range between class characteristics and individual characteristics are subclass characteristics. The NRC notes that subclass characteristics are caused by the gun’s manufacturing process. They may be present in only a small subset of guns that were manufactured in the same place and at the same time, but they are not uniquely caused by a particular gun. Two different guns can produce identical subclass characteristics.

The Limits of Firearms Identification Evidence

The NRC review makes clear that it is impossible to be certain that two bullets were fired from the same gun without examining every gun that could have fired the bullets. The fact that two bullets share similar markings does not rule out the possibility that they were fired from two guns that happen to cause similar markings. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) agreed that ballistics evidence, like much other evidence involving forensic standards, is too subjective to produce consistently reliable results.

In addition, to know whether markings are individual characteristics or subclass characteristics, it is necessary to know the manufacturer and model of the gun from which the bullet was fired. Firearms examiners can generally rule out the possibility that two bullets were fired from the same gun when their markings are different. Concluding that two bullets were fired from the same gun is much more difficult. It is usually impossible to draw that conclusion with any certainty if the examiner does not have the gun from which the bullets were fired.

Expert Opinion Limited

As Auimatagi’s case approached trial, his lawyers filed a motion to exclude Talfya’s opinions on the ground that they were not reliable. The trial judge decided that Talfya would be allowed to testify, but that his testimony will be limited.

The judge decided that Talfya can testify that he saw similar markings on the bullets recovered in the two shooting. The judge allowed Talfya to describe how guns leave markings on bullets. Talfya will also be allowed to testify about the characteristics of the markings he saw on each bullet.

Talfya will not be allowed to testify, as he did in the preliminary hearing, that the bullets came from the same gun “assuming” that the similarities were not characteristics produced by all guns within the same subclass. The judge recognized that Talfya’s assumption was “not supported by the facts or the science and misstates the level of scientific certainty of his findings and is therefore misleading.”

If he is asked on direct or cross-examination, Talfya will also be allowed “to testify that he cannot exclude or eliminate the bullets as coming from different guns.” He “will not be permitted to describe any greater level of scientific certainty than the bullets may or may not have come from the same gun.” Since Talfya doesn’t know whether the bullets came from the same gun, he shouldn’t be permitted to hint that they probably did.

Lessons Learned

The defense relied on two expert witnesses, Dean David Faigman and Nicholas Scurich. Faigman was a Senior Advisor to the PCAST Report, “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods.”

The Auimatagi prosecution underscores the importance of consulting with a defense expert whenever the prosecution relies on a forensic expert. Expert witnesses can provide vital testimony at trial to counter the prosecution expert’s opinions.

As importantly, defense experts can support a challenge to the admissibility of a prosecution expert’s testimony. Given the tendency of prosecution experts to overreach, employing a defense expert early in the case can assure that juries never hear harmful opinions that amount to improper speculation.

Improper Testimony by Expert Witness Did Not Require New Trial in Florida Negligence Case

Beverly Bowers sued Andrew Tillman for negligence. Tillman was driving a truck in Florida that collided with Bowers’ vehicle. Bowers contended that Tillman’s negligence caused painful injuries to her neck and back, including migraine headaches. The defense argued that those symptoms were caused by a preexisting condition.

At her initial trial, the lawyers for both sides engaged in gladiatorial behavior. They were rude to each other, sometimes in the presence of the jury. After five days of trial, the trial judge had enough and granted a mistrial.

The unprofessional conduct continued in the second trial. At the end of the trial, the jury awarded Bowers $58,248 for her past medical expenses and $27,300 in lost wages. The jury determined that her injuries were not permanent and awarded her nothing for future medical care or loss of earning capacity. Remarkably, the jury made no award for pain and suffering.

Bowers moved the trial court for a new trial. She based her motion in part on improper comments made by an expert witness for the defense. The judge denied the motion and Bowers appealed.

Defense Expert’s Comments

Dr. Robert Kowalski testified as an expert for the defense. Prior to trial, Bowers asked the court to exclude any testimony referring to matters outside the record. The court granted that motion. In particular, the court precluded any reference to the content of medical records that Dr. Kowalski had not seen.

The defense had complained that Bowers did not produce her chiropractic records. The court ruled that the defense could not speculate that the records would “show x, y, or z about the Plaintiff” or to argue “we just don’t know because the Plaintiff did not give them to us.”

Notwithstanding that order, Dr. Kowalski testified on direct examination that he believed certain records of Bowers’ chiropractic treatment would support his opinion that her injuries were caused by a preexisting condition. The records were not in evidence and Dr. Kowalski’s suspicions about their content were therefore unsupported.

Dr. Kowalski’s testimony was a blatant violation of the order limiting his testimony. Whether Dr. Kowalski was aware of that order was unclear to the appellate court, but ignorance is no defense. The insurance defense lawyer had a duty to instruct Dr. Kowalski to follow the court’s order. Whether the fault lay with the lawyer or the expert witness has no bearing on whether the improper testimony deprived Bowers of a fair trial.

Bowers objected to the testimony. The court sustained the objection and instructed the jury to disregard the comments. The court denied a motion for a mistrial.

Hidden Medical Record

Bowers originally claimed that certain abdominal symptoms were caused by the accident. She withdrew that claim well before trial. The court entered an order prohibiting reference to her abdominal issues.

Tillman’s attorney assembled a 140-page exhibit that purported to include medical and billing records related to Bower’s injury claims. In the middle of that exhibit, the attorney buried a single page from a urology record that related to the abdominal treatment. Bowers’ attorney did not notice that the page was included in the lengthy exhibit.

During his closing argument, the defense attorney placed the urology record on a screen for the jury to view. The attorney directed the jury’s attention to a urologist’s comment that Bowers’ attorney had referred Bowers to a chiropractor. After Bowers objected, the defense lawyer continued to display the exhibit to the jury until the court ordered him to shut off the display.

No other evidence at trial suggested that Bowers saw a chiropractor at the suggestion of her attorney. The court determined that defense counsel deliberately smuggled an improper exhibit into the compilation of medical records so that he could present otherwise inadmissible evidence to the jury during his closing argument. The court ordered the urology record to be removed from the exhibit, ordered defense counsel not to comment upon it further, and instructed the jury to disregard it.

Appellate Decision

As the appellate court recognized, Dr. Kowalski’s testimony about the presumed content of the chiropractic records bolstered his opinion about a preexisting condition. It was clearly improper to violate an order that was entered to protect Bowers from improper speculation about the content of records that Dr. Kowalski had never seen.

The improper testimony was compounded by defense counsel’s reference to a urology record that he buried in the middle of a compilation of medical records. The appellate court condemned counsel’s “gotcha” tactic and observed that lawyers, as officers of the court, have a special duty “to avoid conduct that undermines the integrity of the adjudicative process.” Defense counsel fell well short of fulfilling that duty.

In her motion for a new trial, Bowers argued that the trial court should take notice of other cases in which defense counsel had engaged in improper trial tactics that prompted a new trial. The trial judge decided that the bar association, rather than the court, should determine whether counsel had engaged in a pattern of misconduct. The appellate court held that the trial court did not err by basing its decision on the case before it rather than other cases in which defense counsel participated.

The ultimate question before the appellate court was whether the expert’s improper testimony, combined with the improper closing argument, deprived Bowers of a fair trial. The jury’s failure to award her any compensation for pain and suffering is strong evidence that the jury believed Bowers was unworthy of compensation. The improper expert testimony and closing argument would be a reasonable explanation of the jury’s conclusion.

The appellate court, however, decided that the trial judge was in the best position to decide whether the improper conduct probably had an impact on the jury. That’s true, but it is likely true that the trial judge didn’t want to preside over another contentious trial involving the same lawyers. The appellate court did not evaluate the trial court’s reasoning. It also failed to offer any alternative explanation for the jury’s failure to award damages for pain and suffering after awarding substantial compensation for medical expenses and lost wages. Whether the appellate court reached the correct result is difficult to determine when the appellate court defers to a decision that it fails to analyze.

Lessons Learned

A lawyer might be tempted to learn from the Bowers decision that introducing inadmissible testimony through an expert witness is the path to victory. A better lesson to learn is that lawyers jeopardize their reputations by engaging in sharp practices.

It isn’t clear whether the expert knew about the order limiting his testimony. It therefore isn’t clear whether the expert knowingly did anything wrong. It is nevertheless a lawyer’s duty to acquaint a testifying expert with limitations that a court has imposed on the expert’s testimony. A lawyer’s failure to do so places a favorable verdict at risk. While the improper expert testimony did not lead to a new trial in Bowers’ case, lawyers should never assume that eliciting improper testimony from an expert witness will have no consequences.

Disabled man, wheelchair

Suit Claims Requiring Disabled Attorneys to Present Experts is Discriminatory

A new suit filed in California district court claims that the California State Bar discriminates against attorneys with mental disabilities by requiring them to present expert witnesses to attest to their condition when they are facing discipline.

The Requirement

The Rules of Procedure of the State Bar of California outlines ten mitigating factors that a respondent may rely upon in disciplinary proceedings. Standard 1.6(d) specifies that “Mitigating circumstances may include:…(d) extreme emotional difficulties or physical or mental disabilities suffered by the member at the time of the misconduct and established by expert testimony as directly responsible for the misconduct, provided that such difficulties or disabilities were not the product of any illegal conduct by the member, such as illegal drug or substance abuse, and the member established by clear and convincing evidence that the difficulties no longer post a risk that the member will commit misconduct.”

The Lawsuit

On June 24, 2021, Michael Potere filed a lawsuit against The Board of Trustees of the State Bar of California and Donna S. Hershkowitz, the Interim Executive Director of The Board of Trustees of the State Bar of California.

Potere is disabled according to the definition provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities” or the individual in question and “mental impairment” to include “any mental or psychological disorder, such as…emotional or mental illness.” Potere has been diagnosed by numerous medical professionals as suffering from depression or major depression.

Potere claimed that he was harmed by Standard 1.6(d) because he was financially unable to hire an expert witness in his California State Bar Court proceedings. Because he was unable to provide an expert witness, the Hearing Department and the Review Department both found that Potere failed to prove that his mental disability caused his misconduct.

In his suit, Potere claimed that Standard 1.6(d) discriminated against persons with disabilities because it is the only group of respondents who are required to use expert testimony to establish a mitigating circumstance. Additionally, the respondents would be required to provide that expert witness at their own expense.

Potere points out that California is the only state that requires disabled respondents to hire an expert witness to prove that they have a disability. Every other state either follows the ABA Standard 9.32(i), which requires only “medical evidence,” or has no evidentiary requirement at all.

Potere argues that Standard 1.6(d)’s heightened evidentiary burden for disabled respondents violates their constitutional right to due process and equal protection, along with their right to be free from discrimination based on their disability pursuant to the American with Disabilities Act.

Potere brought the lawsuit on behalf of himself and those similarly situated. He asked for the court to issue a declaratory judgment that Standard 1.6(d) violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution and violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Potere also asked the court to permanently enjoin The State Bar of California for using or enforcing Standard 1.6(d) as it is currently written.

Ethics

Is It Ethical for a Medical Examiner to Testify for the Defense?

Medical examiners are employed by state and local governments to determine a cause of death. Television shows tend to portray medical examiners as forensic detectives. While medical examiners often find information that helps investigators solve crimes, their mission is simply to determine why someone died.

In routine cases, the cause of death is not a mystery. Most states require an autopsy to be performed when the cause of death is suspicious or unknown. Medical examiners often perform autopsies when a death probably resulted from homicide, suicide, an accident, or an occupational hazard. In those cases, a medical examiner typically dissects and examines the body and reviews results of lab tests to determine why a person died. Sometimes the medical examiner will need to sort through multiple causes to determine whether any of them would have been sufficient to cause death in the absence of the others.

In some cases, the cause of death is disputed. Those disputes may arise in criminal cases or in wrongful death lawsuits. When a medical examiner draws conclusions from medical evidence that is open to interpretation, a party may retain a pathologist as an expert witness to offer alternative explanations for a death. It is then up to a jury to decide whether to accept the medical examiner’s opinion.

The Importance of a Second Opinion

While medical examiners are usually reliable witnesses, no witness is infallible. In homicide prosecutions, defense attorneys often submit autopsy reports to independent pathologists to determine whether the medical examiner’s opinion is open to doubt.

Writing for MedPage Today, Dr. Judy Melinek relates the story of a forensic pathologist who was asked by the family of a man who died in police custody to perform a second autopsy. The pathologist noted that the man’s neck had not been fully dissected. When she opened the neck, she found a bag of drugs that was blocking the back of the man’s throat. The pathologist who performed the first autopsy missed a likely cause of death.

The privately retained pathologist told Dr. Melinek that she was accused of planting the drugs. Since autopsies are usually performed in the presence of photographers and lab assistants, planting evidence would typically be a difficult task. Nor was there any reason to believe that the private pathologist had any incentive to do so.

According to Dr. Melinek, however, attacks upon the integrity of privately retained experts are common. One pathologist, for example, discovered a broken hyoid bone that the first autopsy missed. A fractured hyoid bone is rare and is typically caused by strangulation. The pathologist who found the fracture was accused of breaking the bone himself. He was eventually exonerated, but only after years of fighting the false accusation. The accusation has followed the pathologist, making lawyers reluctant to hire him as an expert witness.

The Ethics of Testifying

Medical examiners work for the government. They don’t work for prosecutors. Their job is to advance the truth, not to advance a prosecution. Unfortunately, as Dr. Melnick points out, “there is a subset of prosecutors who believe, and will not be dissuaded, that the investigative work done by a medical examiner always ought to align with the goals of law enforcement. Some forensic pathologists feel the same way.” Those pathologists serve a law enforcement agenda when discovering the truth should be their only agenda.

Dr. Melnick reports that some medical examiners refuse to speak to defense attorneys. A medical examiner should have nothing to hide. Refusing to discuss findings with a defense attorney sends the message that the medical examiner is an advocate for the prosecution rather than an advocate for the truth.

Doctors who are employed by the government sometimes disparage forensic pathologists who are hired by defense attorneys. In fact, an expert who is called to testify by a defense lawyer is bound by the same ethical obligations that should govern the testimony of a medical examiner. The primary obligation is honesty. When a cause of death is a matter of probability and other causes remain possibilities, an honest witness should readily admit that fact.

When Dr. Melnick worked as a pathologist for a medical examiner’s office, she did some consulting work in civil and criminal cases, including work for prosecutors in other counties. Her employer told her that her testimony created a conflict of interest. In fact, there is no conflict in testifying for “the other side” because the truth does not take sides. As Dr. Melnick puts it, “We are neither defense witnesses nor prosecution experts. We are witnesses for the voiceless. We speak for the dead.”

Government employers that restrict the work of pathologists are interfering with a justice system that depends on the honest testimony of expert witnesses. Government employees who launch “whisper campaigns” to destroy the reputations of pathologists who give honest testimony for other parties place their own reputations, and the reputations of honest colleagues, at risk. Nobody trusts an expert who makes groundless attacks upon other experts simply because they follow the evidence to the truth that it reveals.

Courtroom

When Must a Summary Witness Testify as an Expert?

Federal courts may allow a summary witness to explain how documents and testimony fit together. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently rejected the argument that a summary witness needed to testify as an expert to explain the government’s case.

Facts of the Case

Carl Nicholson is a certified public accountant. He was charged with eleven tax crimes, including filing false tax returns for himself and assisting clients in the preparation of false tax returns. A jury found Nicholson guilty on all counts. A judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

Nicholson was a partner in an accounting firm. Pursuant to firm policy, Nicholson was entitled to use his personal credit card for business expenses and to request reimbursement from the firm. Nicholson was reimbursed for charges to his American Express (“Amex”) account that were incurred for personal reasons, including family travel.

Nicholson did not report the improper reimbursements as income on his personal tax returns. Some of the criminal charges related to his failure to disclose taxable income.

Nicholson’s partners bought out his interest in the firm in 2015. To calculate the amount of profit Nicholson earned from that sale, Nicholson claimed to have paid $150,000 for his interest in the company and an additional $300,000 that he paid overtime on the firm’s behalf. The firm’s managing partner testified that the additional payments of $300,000 were never made. Although the managing partner recalled that Nicholson made an initial investment of $150,000, financial statements showed that he actually paid $100,000. Nicholson was thus accused of inflating his investment in the firm by $350,000 to reduce the amount of taxable profit he made when he sold that interest.

Summary Witness

The government relied in part on testimony given by IRS Agent Bradley Luker. Through Luker, the government introduced summary charts of Nicholson’s tax returns. The charts also summarized Nicholson’s Amex reimbursement requests.

The Federal Rules of Evidence allow summaries to be introduced into evidence “to prove the content of voluminous writings, recordings, or photographs that cannot be conveniently examined in court.” However, the summaries may not introduce evidence that the jury has not already heard.

All of the information in Luker’s charts was taken from earlier testimony and documents that had been received into evidence, including tax returns and bank statements. The jury was instructed that “summary charts and witnesses are no better than the underlying testimony and the documents upon which they are based and are not themselves independent evidence.”

In the Fifth Circuit, at least, a summary witness is entitled to “sort through the evidence” to show how the documents that were introduced into evidence “related to each other and to the charges in the indictment.” However, summary evidence may not be used to “fill in holes” in the party’s case by assuming the existence of facts that have not been independently established.

Was Lurker an Expert Witness?

Nicholson argued that Lurker should not have been allowed “to state his conclusions about whether Nicholson’s income tax returns were ‘false’ and what the ‘correct’ amounts should have been.” Lurker was not an accountant and did not testify as an expert. Nicholson argued that only an expert should be allowed to state opinions about tax matters.

The court of appeals concluded that Lurker was merely summarizing other testimony and therefore did not testify as an expert. Since the court did not quote Lurker’s testimony, it is difficult to evaluate whether he offered his own opinion about how income should have been reported.

Nicholson also contended that Lurker’s testimony was not summative but was in conflict with other testimony. Lurker testified that a $66,000 payment from one of Nicholson’s clients was not for accounting services. The client testified that he was billed for accounting services and, while he disputed whether the money was owed, he paid the bill. Since the client had an agreement with Nicholson’s firm that he would not be charged for accounting services, there was evidence to support the conclusion that the $66,000 was not for accounting services. The court found no conflict in the testimony despite evidence that the client told Nicholson to record the funds as a payment for accounting services.

Nicholson also complained that Lurker contradicted the managing partner, who testified that he recalled Nicholson making an initial investment of $150,000 in the firm. The court of appeals noted that Lurker did not characterize the managing partner’s testimony as false but did testify about the $100,000 investment shown on financial statements. Since those statements were in evidence, there was no conflict between Lurker’s testimony and facts in evidence.

Finally, the managing partner testified that he did not authorize reimbursement of funds for family vacations and other expenses for which Nicholson charged the firm. The managing partner did testify that whether some of those expenses were legitimate might be a matter of opinion, but in his opinion they were not. Lurker testified that he based his chart of improper expense reimbursements on the managing partner’s testimony.

The court of appeals rejected the claim that Lurker essentially testified as an expert who agreed with the manager’s opinion as to the legitimacy of the expense reimbursements. The court also rejected the argument that Lurker improperly bolstered the managing partner’s testimony. It was up to the jury to decide whether to believe that Nicholson improperly reimbursed himself for nonexistent business expenses and failed to claim those reimbursements as income.

The court of appeals nevertheless recognized that the case involved issues of accounting, business arrangements, and tax preparation that went beyond the knowledge of average jurors. Given the thin line between showing how documents relate to each other and explaining the documents, perhaps the government should have relied on an expert witness to help prove its case. Since Lurker merely summarized testimony and documents that were already in evidence, however, he did not testify as an expert. To the extent that an expert might have been in a better position to give that testimony, the court regarded any error as harmless.

accountant

Damages Expert Excluded for Failure to Do Independent Verification

A plaintiff damages expert has been excluded in a false advertising case under the Lanham Act for failure to do any independent verification of the plaintiff’s cost estimates.

The Dispute

Natera and CareDx are manufacturers of kidney transplant tests. Natera created an advertising campaign aimed at showing that its kidney transplant rejection test is superior to CareDx’s AlloSure organ transplant diagnostics.

CareDx sued Natera, claiming false advertising. CareDx argued, “Natera has begun a false advertising campaign designed to deceive doctors, healthcare professionals, insurance companies, and patients — as well as investors — into believing that Natera’s ‘me too’ test is superior to AlloSure when that has simply not been shown… Natera’s dissemination of false and misleading claims about AlloSure is an attempt to poison the marketplace and must be stopped.”

CareDx specifically accused Natera of one count of false advertising in violation of the Lanham Act, one count of trademark disparagement under the Lanham Act, one count of common law unfair competition, and one count of unfair or deceptive trade practices under Delaware law.

Lanham Act Damages

According to CareDx, under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a)(2), “a successful false advertising plaintiff can recover the costs of any completed advertising that actually and reasonably responds to the defendant’s offending ads.”

CareDx presented James Malackowski as a damages expert at trial to establish the actual costs of corrective advertising spent in 2019 and the first half of 2020 and the projected costs of continued corrective advertising for the second half of 2020 and 2021. Malackowski did not perform independent analysis of the marketing spend. Instead, Malackowski relied solely on the CareDx Chief Executive Officer’s deposition testimony containing an estimate of the company’s expenditures on corrective advertising.

Natera moved to exclude CareDx’s proposed expert under Rule 702 and Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 requires that an expert be qualified, reliable, and fit. Federal Rule of Evidence 403 allows a court to exclude relevant evidence “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”

The United States District Court for the District of Delaware agreed with Natera. The court determined that Malackowski’s corrective advertising opinions failed to meet all three requirements of Rule 702:

(1) The challenged opinions did not contain specialized knowledge outside a juror’s common understanding; therefore, they failed both the qualification and fit requirements.

(2) The challenged opinions were also unreliable. The expert’s efforts were limited to reading the CareDx CEO’s deposition, interviewing the CEO, and reviewing one SEC filing. The court noted that Malackowski failed to review ledgers, invoices, or interview any marketing or other personnel who could provide more specific data.

The court also noted that even if the challenged testimony were admissible under Rule 702, it should be excluded under Rule 403 as unfairly prejudicial, misleading to the jury, and needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.

The court excluded Malackowski’s testimony.