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Today There's an Expert for Any Occasion

Knowledgeable on topics from horses to handguns, witnesses 'can make or break a case.' Critics assail flaws.

January 11, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once dominated by doctors and science professors, the world of expert witnesses is branching out to topics ranging from artifacts to aquatics, forklifts to forestry.

In the last six years, the number of categories of experts in a national directory of witnesses has doubled to more than 400. And although the Y2K category is no longer included in the Northern California-based advertising directory, next year's edition will boast a timely new heading: domestic terrorism.

Legal newspapers and magazines are also sprinkled with ads from court experts, such as "One of a Kind Bicycling Expert" and "Scalding Expert: Millions in Settlements, Judgments and Savings." An accident investigation and reconstruction expert bills himself as "Mr. Truck."

Expert witnesses are a key ingredient of most trials; they serve as authorities who bolster the arguments of attorneys and translate technical evidence for jurors. They testify in cases stemming from skiing accidents, claims of medical malpractice and the alleged abuse of circus animals.

"The good ones are really good investigators; they're detectives, and they can really make or break a case," said Stephen Bernard, partner at a West Los Angeles law firm that handles catastrophic injury cases.

Former Olympic equestrian medalist Kathy Kusner took out her first advertisement in a legal publication in 1983, and she has been working as an expert witness on horses ever since.

In some cases, she provides attorneys with behind-the-scenes advice from a "horseman's point of view." In others, she testifies on whether a rider or a rental stable is to blame for an injury.

"Whether you are an expert for plumbing or electrical or horses, the attorney doesn't know those things," Kusner said.

"The attorney is an expert at being an attorney, and the judge is an expert at being a judge. Your job is to educate."

Critics, however, say that the lawyers are allowed to rely too heavily on experts who are essentially paid advocates.

"For experts, this is a business--no more, no less than selling hamburgers," said University of Florida professor Jeffrey Harrison, who has researched the subject. "Though in this case, they can sell pretty much whatever they want."

Juries often buy arguments based on experts' credentials and performance, instead of carefully evaluating the testimony they hear, Harrison said.

As a result, many trials turn into battles of the experts, with the best speakers--rather than the ones who present the most cogent facts--providing the winning testimony.

"When it gets to trial, it's like putting on a play," Harrison said. "The better actors you have, the better your play will be."

Arthur H. Patterson, an expert on expert witnesses, said he instructs them to speak strongly and confidently, make eye contact with jurors and to inform without sounding patronizing.

"Every time an expert has said to a jury, 'I'm going to make this simple for you,' the jurors immediately became angry with the expert because that is an insulting thing to say," said Patterson, a jury consultant with DecisionQuest.

Experts are quick to defend their reputations, saying that they can't be bought and that they won't let attorneys stomp on their integrity or credibility by coercing them to testify a certain way. Attorneys maintain they are looking for truthful witnesses--not hired guns.

But lawyers concede that they will put on the stand only experts who agree with them, and that they can always find an expert who follows the skeptic's saying: For a reasonable fee, I'll give you reasonable doubt.

Some experts acknowledge having an agenda when they enter the courtroom.

Bicycle expert Sean Collinsworth said his goal is to defend the rights of bicyclists. To the retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, that means making what those rights are clear to both bicyclists and motorists.

Collinsworth divides his time between testifying on behalf of injured bicyclists and testifying against bicyclists who abuse their rights, such as a woman in a recent Orange County case who was hit after darting into traffic.

Expert witnesses are not required to have specific qualifications before taking the stand. The California jury instructions simply say expert witnesses have "special knowledge, skill, experience, training or education in a particular subject."

When expert testimony is admitted, judges are required to tell jurors that "an opinion is only as good as the facts and reasons on which it is based."

L.A. Superior Court Judge William Pounders, who heads the court's panel on expert witnesses, said he won't allow an expert to take the stand if the testimony would hurt jurors' understanding of the case.

Los Angeles County Superior Court has compiled a list of 85 recommended experts in 37 fields after reviewing their credentials. Attorneys can refer to the list when choosing a witness, but they are not limited to those experts.

Patterson said the courts need to take the lead in keeping charlatans from testifying.

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