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The Expert Witness: The Linchpin of Your Product Liability Case

Woman with Transvaginal MeshLet’s say you are a woman in your forties, and the mother of three children. After the birth of your third child you began to suffer from pelvic organ prolapse. This condition occurs when an organ like the bladder drops from its normal position and presses against the walls of the vagina. You go to your gynecologist, who recommends implantation of transvaginal mesh (TVM), the net-like plastic product that was marketed and sold as a solution to the problem of pelvic organ prolapse. You have the surgery. Soon you begin to suffer new and different pain and new health problems. You undergo three revision surgeries to remove all the pieces of the mesh. But after the revision surgeries you still suffer from pain and incontinence. You call an attorney, who files a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the TVM product. A few months into the litigation, your attorney explains that you now need an expert witness.

Your attorney is absolutely correct: you will need an expert witness in virtually all product liability cases. And a good one. And fast. If you do not have a qualified expert witness who can make the connection between your injuries and the failed product, then in the eyes of the court you do not have a case.

Your Most Important Witness

Expert witnesses are critical members of the team that is built to win your product liability case. In fact, other than your choice of attorney, the selection of the expert witness will be the most important decision you will make to help you win your case.

Expert Witness in Product Liability Case

Expert witnesses are common in all kinds of litigation. In a simple car crash case, a treating doctor is almost always called to testify about the nature of the plaintiff’s injuries after the crash. In some car crash cases, a second expert witness will be called to explain why a car’s brakes failed, or why the car’s airbag did not deploy. Usually this testimony ends by showing causation, “and if the brakes did not fail, the driver would not have crashed into that oak tree and broken his arm.”

In a product liability case, the expert must be able to show causation, to make the connection between the failure of the product and the injuries the person suffered. If the injured person cannot show this causation through the testimony of a qualified expert witness, she cannot win her case. In the example at the top of this post, the expert will have to be able to testify that the new pains and the new health problems were medically caused by the failure of the mesh and the need for multiple revision surgeries.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Finding a Qualified Expert Witness

Before an expert witness can testify as an expert, he or she must be qualified by the trial judge. You may have heard the name of this case before, but in most states the admissibility of expert testimony is governed by a Supreme Court case from the 1990s, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The Daubert standard requires a trial judge to scrutinize all potential expert witnesses before the expert is permitted to testify as an expert. If the expert is qualified by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education,” the expert will be allowed to testify if:

(1) the information provided by the expert will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue;

(2) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(3) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(4) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

The qualification of an expert is one of the biggest battles that a plaintiff will face in litigation. The plaintiff’s lawyer will argue aggressively for the qualifications of the expert and the relevance of the expert’s testimony. The defense will argue just as aggressively that the plaintiff’s expert is unqualified, and that even if the expert is qualified, the testimony will not be helpful for the jury to understand the case. The trial judge will ultimately have to make the determination whether to permit the expert to testify. It is one of the key decisions the judge will make in a product liability case.

I can’t stress this enough: your expert witness is a vital part of your case. If the expert does not have proper education or credentials, or if the expert fails to provide convincing analysis of the connection between the failed product and the injuries, then the judge will reject the expert and the plaintiff will lose her case.

This situation happened recently in the Zimmer NexGen knee case. On the eve of the second “bellwether” trial, Judge Pallmeyer rejected the plaintiff’s expert and granted summary judgment for the defendants. Among other things, the judge concluded that plaintiff’s proposed expert has not “given the court sufficient basis to conclude that his opinion is reliable.” (Order, p. 17) After years of litigation, the plaintiff was out of court.

Your Expert Must be a Good Communicator

Expert Witness as TeacherChoosing the right expert is very difficult. First, you must find a person with the right kind of expertise for the particular case. This expertise must be of a kind that will survive a motion to exclude the testimony by the defendants (such as a Daubert challenge). If your expert survives that scrutiny, he or she will still need to be able to communicate effectively with a jury. And those jurors will likely have almost no understanding of transvaginal mesh or pelvic organ prolapse (although they will know a lot about it by the end of the trial). Your expert must be able to communicate complicated medical or scientific terms in a simple way so that jurors will understand the concepts. This is no easy task. Your lawyer must talk to several potential experts before hiring one to testify on your behalf. My favorite experts are natural teachers. They can take very complicated subjects and explain them so that my teenage son can easily understand them. When that happens, you often win over the jury.

Experts don’t work for free. Every expert will charge the plaintiff for the time it takes to review the case file, analyze the information, write an expert report, and testify. Beyond that, the expert will have to be paid for travel expenses, hotels, and other costs. But if you find the right expert, the expense will easily pay off. Good luck.