Role of the Expert Witness
The legal system provides a forum whereby people (plaintiffs), who believe they have suffered an injury due to the action or inaction of another (defendant) can pursue a legal remedy. In the medical industry, the most common complaint is that a provider or institution failed to live up to the standard of care. Within this process the expert witness plays a critical role in determining the prevailing medical standards for a given fact scenario.
The medical expert witness provides several important functions. First and foremost, the expert must be able to interpret and analyze complex clinical scenarios. Then the expert determines the appropriate standard of care to be applied to the specific facts. It is then necessary to decide if the care given represents a breach from the applicable standard of care. If a breach has occurred, an assessment of any injury the patient has experienced is done. Finally, establishing causation between the breach and the injury is necessary for the case to have merit.
Another important role for the expert is educating counsel about the particulars of any given case. The expert is an integral member of the legal team. If the case proceeds, the expert may be asked to provide a deposition. During a deposition, opposing counsel will often challenge the expert on their credentials, their process of evaluating the case, and the resultant conclusions reached. Therefore, it is critical to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the facts of the case, as well as the relevant care standards.
An expert may be required to testify at trial. He/she should state their qualifications and credentials with accuracy. It is important to avoid exaggeration or the appearance of arrogance. During testimony, whether at trial or in deposition, the expert should explain the matter in a way that is easily understood by the average layman. Complex medical scenarios should be described precisely and understandably. An expert should avoid assuming or guessing the content or motivation behind a question. If the expert doesn’t understand the question or its purpose, asking for it to be repeated or clarified ensures precision in the expert’s answer.
Importantly, an expert should remain calm and impartial. The expert witness must behave in the most ethical and unbiased manner possible. The expert must always tell the truth and avoid exaggeration or unsubstantiated opinions. Care must be taken not to allow questioning to lead to assumptions or conclusions contrary to his/her expert opinion. As an expert in the field, we have a duty to the truth, as well as to the judge and jury. They rely on you to educate them so they can come to a well-informed decision.
In summary, the role of an expert is to shed light on a complex situation and educate others involved about the important issues at hand. This duty is critical to the legal process, and must be treated with the professionalism and respect it deserves. Without the information the expert witness provides, the non-medical participants in the legal process are essentially shooting in the dark. It is their responsibility to adjudicate the case fairly and justly, and you are critical to their ability to do so. Determining the outcome of the case is their responsibility, informing them is yours.