Common Sense Only As Good As Common Knowledge Without Expert Testimony

If you have questions about your civil case, or if you should involve an expert witness, contact civil law attorney Jeffrey Hark today.

Juries and Expert Testimony in Civil Law Cases

The Seventh Amendment provides the right to a ‘jury of your peers’ in certain civil cases. Why role do juries provide in a civil case? Well that’s simple–plain old reasonable common sense. Torts cases, especially run of the mill slip-and-fall torts cases often have a lot to do with common sense assessments of a duty of care and a breach of that duty. The classic example is the rear-end collision. Driver A crashes into Driver B because Driver A wasn’t paying attention. A case that simple without other factors may not even make it to trial. However, more often in this day and age many many cases are not that simple. When the subject matter of the dispute, medical malpractice, products liability, major multi-vehicle crashes, and substantial and significant bodily injuries with long term effects the attorneys have to tell they case with experts.  Experts in their respective fields, medical doctors, design experts, long term care management specialists for brain injure care, are just a few examples of the many experts used when the issues are too complex for the lay person to understand without further explanation.

Expert Testimony in Civil Law

Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence (which is similar to most state rules) says that “a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if…[it] will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence…is based on sufficient facts or data…is the product of reliable principles and methods…the expert has reliably applies the principles and methods to the facts of the case.” Your lawyer will qualify the expert and not everyone can be an expert. For example in a case about negligence resulting in a fire it may be acceptable to bring in an arson/fire inspector with ten years of experience or a structural engineer. It likely won’t be acceptable to use someone whose only experience with fire is that they also were a victim of a fire once.

Civil Case Example – No Expert Testimony Necessary

It is often easy to determine you need an expert in disputes of fact relating to medical procedures/injuries, structural/mechanical defects, and anything scientific. With really simple cases it is often obvious that an expert would be a waste of time. But there are a lot of cases in between. Let’s look at two cases both of which resulted from a tenant suing their landlord. In Arroyave v. Quaker Village Apartments decided February 12, 2015 by the Appellate Division. In this case the plaintiff is appealing a grant of summary judgment to the defendant from an incident in which she slipped down a small hill leading from the parking lot to her apartment resulting in a broken ankle. However the facts of the case reveal that she had a sidewalk available for her use even though it caused her to have to walk around the apartment complex which was further than walking down the hill.

The Appellate Court determined that the trial judge was correct when it determined:

  1. the small hill was a very shallow incline
  2. the grass was recently cut and
  3. no expert was necessary.

No expert testimony was mentioned by anyone in this case because the issues were simple. Was there an alternative to walking down the hill? Was there any negligence on the part of the apartment building? This was a common sense case for an injury that was not life-threatening and likely not life-altering. No expert needed.

Civil Case Example 2 – Complex Matters Require Expert Explanation

The second case is Nicolas v. Riverview Towers Apartment Corporation decided February 12, 2015 by the Appellate Division. In this case the tenant tore his rotator cuff when he was leaving the laundry room of the apartment building and the fire door slammed on him. The minimum duty of care in this situation is determined by the 2009 International Building Code, New Jersey Edition. The Code reveals that contrary to the plaintiff’s demands that it close slowly or have a “stopper” the only requirement is that it must be automatic-closing. Nevertheless the Court did point out that because the code is complex a jury would have needed expert testimony to understand it. So here is a case that may seem “open and shut” but could involve complex codes. Consult your attorney on whether an expert is needed in your case.

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