By: Aaron Shechet
As we mentioned in our article “Winning Your Lawsuit—understanding litigation” (here or here), evidence is the primary focus of a lawsuit. In “Winning Your Lawsuit,” we focused on the discovery process, where you exchange evidence, or avoid exchanging evidence, with the other party. Here, I want to talk about the next step: explaining your evidence to a judge or jury.
While the value of some evidence is obvious – for instance, a signed contract regarding the subject matter of the dispute – other evidence requires explanation. For example, your opponent may claim that the signature on your contract is a forgery. In that case, someone needs to analyze the signature and provide an opinion as to its authenticity. Some cases turn on scientific or medical evidence which requires explanation. Other disputes require an expert witness simply because the central issues are confusing or unsettled. For example, I served as an expert witness to testify about true retainers in a lawsuit by music producer Phil Spector against his lawyer Robert Shapiro. This issue isn’t scientific or technical, but it is the subject of much disagreement in the legal community.
In California, the evidence code prohibits laypersons from giving opinions about anything requiring special qualification, so you can’t have just any witness explain issues like these to the jury. In situations like these, you need an expert witness. An expert witness is exactly that – an expert in a specific field who will give an opinion about something that most people are not qualified to testify about. After all, if someone does not have special training to identify forged signatures, their opinion about a signature is little more than a guess. It is not evidence.
Whether you need to hire an expert witness depends on your case. Qualified experts are expensive, and may need to spend a lot of time preparing for your case, answering questions at a deposition, and testifying at trial. But in some cases, an expert witness is vital.