COURTROOM DRAMAS are a staple of television today. For many SH&E professionals, it may seem that seeing a court room on TV is as close as they will ever get. However, SH&E professionals are playing an increasingly important role as expert witnesses in many court cases. Unlike eyewitnesses who can only testify as to what they saw, heard, felt or smelled, expert witnesses can state their opinion in court. Using education and experience, the expert evaluates the facts to provide an opinion, answering questions such as, what contributed to the accident? or, what safety regulations were violated?
An expert witness is an unbiased person with technical knowledge who can help laypeople understand the complexities of evaluating, for example, the safety of products, workplaces and processes. Experts review facts in a court case, reach an opinion based on their specialized knowledge and report their findings. Many consider the key role of these experts to be education---teaching others (e.g., judge, jury) about their specialty. This is done to convince those considering a court case that the expert's conclusion are correct and should be believed. Ideally, this would result in a legal decision based on sound principles. Attorneys hire experts to fill various roles. An expert may be hired initially as a confidential consultant. In this role, the expert reviews materials, then assesses and explains them to the attorney. An example would be when a plaintiff's attorney has a safety expert evaluate some aspect of the case and prepare a technical report. This report is then shared with the defense attorney who may wish to hire another expert to review, evaluate and explain it. A second expert could serve as a confidential consultant to the defense attorney. S/he might be asked to review the first expert's credentials as well as his/her methods. If the defense's expert agrees with the initial expert's opinion, the parties may then settle the case. If the expert does not agree, then the defense attorney may wish to disclose the expert as a testifying expert and use him/her to challenge the plaintiff's expert. A testifying expert differs from a confidential consultant in that associated materials will be shared with the opposing attorney in the discovery process and the expert may be questioned by the plaintiff's attorney. Another distinction sometimes used is a generalist expert versus a specialist. In complex cases, an attorney may hire a generalist who can integrate numerous technical disciplines and help manage the process. The generalist can help the attorney brainstorm, develop strategies and identify technical issues in a case. The specialist is hired to evaluate a specific aspect of the case and to develop a technical opinion.
Serving as an expert witness requires a combination of education and experience. A detailed curriculum vitae (CV) listing an individual's qualifications is commonly used to establish expertise. The CV lists formal education or training. Licenses, such as P.E., and professional designations/certifications, such as a CSP or CIH, should be listed. A listing of professional publications or presentations adds to the expert's credibility. Membership and participation in professional societies and groups should also be noted (Hamilton, 2003).