By Michael Dorn · July 2, 2012
During litigation for a campus homicide last year, plaintiff’s counsel requested I review the qualifications of two expert witnesses retained by opposing counsel. She was concerned she would be up against two of the top experts in the field and was preparing to depose them. While one of the experts was in fact a highly respected and credentialed authority in the field of school safety, there were indications that the other individual has significant problems in his background.
After reviewing the expert’s resume, I advised the attorney that the first expert was highly qualified and had a high level of integrity. I also told her the second expert would likely not perform well under oath if carefully vetted by a properly prepared and skilled attorney. I believed that a series of specific questions relating to the accuracy of the expert’s resume, lack of appropriate formal training in the field, questions about his job history, overall qualifications as an expert for some of the issues in question and indications of potential problems with his integrity would not only prove to be most revealing but would also likely lead to disqualification of the expert by the court. The attorney told opposing counsel that she intended to challenge the second expert’s background during the deposition
Just prior to the deposition of the expert, opposing counsel announced that he was being withdrawn from the case. Losing an expert witness is often a devastating blow to a case. Opposing counsel quickly agreed to settle the case soon after they withdrew what they probably thought was their star witness. This is but one example of how crucial the selection of an expert witness in a civil case against a school, school district, university, hospital or other campus organization can be.
Campus safety officials should understand not only the importance of expert witnesses but also how they are sometimes selected by busy attorneys. Typically, attorneys are not allowed to replace an expert witness who is disqualified or is withdrawn after they have listed their experts for the case. It is not uncommon for attorneys to select an expert witness based on a limited search of expert witness directories or regular search engines. As the case above illustrates, it is not unheard of for an attorney to miss major problems in an expert’s background because they must regularly search for experts in a variety of disciplines and may not be well-versed on a particular field like campus safety.
If your organization is being sued for a safety, security or emergency management incident, it’s a good idea to offer to help defense counsel carefully vet campus safety experts when you have expertise in the campus safety field. Finding out during a deposition that the expert witness was terminated from a prior position for embezzlement of funds, has been arrested for shoplifting, or does not actually have a Ph.D. as claimed on their resume is not a good thing.
Campus safety directors, university police chiefs and other practitioners often have a good network of colleagues that can sometimes help them learn of these types of problems in an expert’s background with a few phone calls. At the same time, some things that can lead to an expert being disqualified may not be common knowledge among practitioners. This can require additional evaluation to vet an expert.