By Marc Davis
Jason Turchin, a Weston, Florida, lawyer, has successfully used expert witnesses from fields in which there are not many experts, including the relatively new field of automobile air bag injuries.
“One of the most unusual experts we’ve used was an arborist,” says Turchin, a personal injury and wrongful death attorney. “He was a professor and scientist who explained to a jury how a tree nut breaks down. The case concerned a client who slipped on a tree nut in a Wal-Mart parking lot.”
The arborist explained the life cycle of a tree nut, proving to the jury that it fell from a tree a week before the accident and should’ve been removed from the parking lot during routine cleanups.
An articulate, persuasive expert witness with excellent credentials can be the deciding factor in winning a case.
“An expert witness can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 an hour,” says Chris Hamilton, an attorney at Standly Hamilton in Dallas specializing in civil litigation, personal injury, product liability and medical malpractice. “We also pay for their travel, lodging and other expenses.”
Expert witnesses “typically help me prepare for a case, for deposition, discovery and trial,” Hamilton says. “Then I prepare them for the case.”
“If you pick a quality witness, they stand up very well to cross-examination,” he says. “The difference between winning or losing a complex case can hinge on the testimony of an expert witness. They’re worth the price.”
That price, however, can run to six figures.
“An expert witness with excellent credentials can cost more than lawyers,” says Ashish Mahendru, a commercial litigator practicing in Houston. Mahendru specializes in breach of contract, partnership and commercial disputes, intellectual property theft and other business-related issues. “A forensic accountant may cost $150,000,” he says.
Mahendru advises clients in advance about the costs and the value of an expert witness. He relies on local experts he’s used previously. But he may also search online for an expert with a rare specialty and sometimes asks attorneys who have previously opposed him in court for recommendations.
Aside from their testimony in court, expert witnesses may also be called to give depositions and for discovery, according to Turchin. If both plaintiff and defendant parties stipulate, and if a judge permits it, experts may testify in court via Skype or closed-circuit TV.
Experts who give opinions in language a layperson can understand are more effective than expert testimony given in medical or technical jargon.
“If a case comes down to a battle of the expert witnesses, the expert who relates better to a jury usually wins them over,” Turchin says.
“Juries like things simple,” he says.