Litigating any case is stressful business. But I had a real nail-biter some time back. It was a product liability case and my client was a small mom-and-pop outfit that supplied a component which had been materially altered, mis-installed, and ultimately caused a rather horrendous accident.
Legally, it should not have been a difficult case to defend. The problem I found myself having was grasping exactly how the alteration and mis-installation had ultimately impacted my client’s component. Any product liability lawyer will tell you this was crucial to the defense. The technical issues were pretty complex, at least for me (a philosophy major, not an electrical engineer), and no matter how hard I tried to understand, no matter how much I thought I’d finally “got it,” I would struggle anytime I tried to explain how the alteration and mis-installation had fouled up my client’s product.
In any other case, I would have relied on our technical liability experts to teach me all of the technical details I need to know. The problem here was that my client was defending the case on a shoestring budget. If we weren’t careful, this case would bankrupt his company. He insisted that he would serve as the primary expert, since he was an engineer who’d invented the component in the first place and nobody knew the technology better. The obvious issue with this was he has no cloak of independence. His testimony would be viewed by the jury as completely self-serving; his opinions suspect as such. The less obvious issue that I had with this plan was the fact that, while my client was undoubtedly a first-rate engineer, his teaching skills were less than stellar. If he couldn’t teach me, how could I expect him to educate the jury? Meanwhile, my opponent was retaining expensive, experienced testifying experts from Exponent, etc.
I typically wouldn’t hire anyone as an expert who couldn’t help me understand, since (1) my comprehension of the technical details is absolutely crucial to my ability to confront the plaintiff and her experts, both in discovery and at trial; and (2) our expert’s ability to educate someone of less-than-genius-level intelligence (i.e., me) is going to be needed in order to help the jury understand why my client can’t be liable. The importance of an expert’s ability to educate the trial lawyer, as well as the lawyer’s responsibility to conduct his/her own outside learning, is discussed by Professor McElhaney, in Litigation. He says:
“The first job for the [expert] witness is to explain everything to you [the trial lawyer]. You have to keep asking questions and demanding answers until you are satisfied. Do not just rely on the witness, either. Read as much additional literature as you have time for; it is not just background information. Learned treatises that support the witness are admissible under Rule 803(18) of the Federal Rules of Evidence.” (p.62)
Our case ultimately settled, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief, but not before spending several near-sleepless nights worrying how I was going to overcome the challenges of sufficiently understanding the technology to deal with both the plaintiff’s and defense liability experts. It was a learning experience in several ways. I learned to quickly recognize when I’m having difficulty grasping the complex technical concepts necessary to effectively defend (or build) a case. I learned that, regardless of budget constraints, it will not suffice to rely on testifying experts who, though knowledgeable in the subject matter, cannot effectively teach it to a complete novice. I learned that selection of experts is not a discussion to put off having with a client until the time for expert retention, but should be addressed at the outset, to ensure the client has an opportunity to think about how an appropriate, qualified expert can be identified and compensated, even with severe budget constraints.