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Cross-Examining the Expert Witness in a PL Case Part II: What Are the Relevant Facts & Data?

In the first part of this series, we examined how effective deposition questioning about an expert’s education, training and experience can ultimately call into serious question the expert’s qualifications to serve as an expert witness at trial and survive a subsequent Daubert motion. We examined how some experts, despite their seemingly extensive and impressive credentials, may actually have no experience in the relevant field or may be exaggerating the depth of their past work experience. This may ultimately lead to the Court finding that the expert is offering opinions in an area about which they know nothing.

In this second part of the series, we’ll examine the “facts and data” that the Plaintiff’s expert, under Rule 702, is supposed to collect and examine as the basis for an opinion. Experience indicates that careful questioning of the expert’s work in gathering facts and data related to the underlying accident and/or the allegedly defective product often shows that, in reality, the expert’s opinions rest on a shaky foundation or a selective version of the relevant facts that can, and often will, collapse with just a few nudges given at the expert’s deposition.

I am often amazed to learn how little work actually went into the expert’s finding that the underlying product is defective. Targeting the extent and depth of the expert’s process of fact gathering or, more accurately, the lack thereof should therefore be an important focus during the expert’s deposition. For example, most experts, even the least prepared, will have read the deposition transcript of the Plaintiff and the Defendant’s lead witness. Upon further questioning, however, we often learn that the expert has read and reviewed little else prior to developing the opinions and writing the Rule 26 report. Many experts don’t bother to view the video of Plaintiff’s deposition where, in some cases, a demonstration of how the accident happened was given. It is not uncommon to learn during the expert’s deposition that the expert did not read the transcripts or written statements from any eyewitnesses to the accident, nor has the expert attempted to independently interview any eyewitness, co-worker or even the Plaintiff’s employer.

Most expert reports will contain a list of the documents read or reviewed by the expert prior to developing the opinions and writing the report. Rather than concentrating on what the expert reviewed, we suggest concentrating on those documents that the expert did not review. Chances are that the expert has probably read the most important product-related documents produced by the Defendant, such as the product’s Operator’s Manual and an assembly drawing or two. Targeted questioning at the deposition often shows, however, that the expert may not have bothered to “drill down” to the second level of product-related documents (i.e., other than the Operator’s Manual and/or the design drawings) generated by the manufacturer during discovery. If the expert has no knowledge of the information contained in these more informative documents that may be favorable to the product’s design, the expert has by definition ignored important “facts and data” – albeit inconvenient information that the expert would probably prefer to ignore – that would call into question the expert’s work-up and overall credibility.

We also find at depositions that the so-called expert did not bother to visit the actual accident scene, nor has the expert obtained and read the police report or the relevant medical records. Some experts don’t even bother to conduct an inspection of the product involved in the accident. Even if the product is not available because it was lost or destroyed during or after the accident, there is a real likelihood that the expert did not bother to obtain a new exemplar in order to determine what the product looked like when it was new and before it was altered or abused by the Plaintiff or others.

Facing a difficult case with an uncertain outcome, and perhaps as a legacy of state court practice, Plaintiffs’ attorneys often keep their expert on a shoestring budget – forcing the expert to develop opinions “on the cheap.”  The first thing sacrificed by these economic constraints is the kind of “sufficient facts and data” required under the Daubert standard before an opinion can be properly rendered in a courtroom. Under the federal court’s “gatekeeping” role to keep out “junk science” and ipse dixit opinions, the Defendant’s exploration of the basis for the expert’s opinions need not be similarly constrained by the Plaintiff’s decision to cut corners. Showing that the “Emperor has no clothes” through targeted questioning at the expert’s deposition can devastate the expert’s credibility and the legitimacy of the opinions being given. Even if the expert survives a later Daubert motion, the expert’s ability to persuade the jury will likely be seriously impacted.

In our next installment in this three-part series, we’ll look at questions that target the expert’s methodology.

© 2017 Wilson Elser

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About this Author

Russ Vignali, Wilson Elser, New York, defense of products liability matters,
Partner

Russ Vignali is a tenacious advocate who focuses his litigation practice on the defense of products liability matters and related commercial disputes in New York state and federal courts. He also handles a variety of claims in the general liability area and has experience with related insurance coverage matters. Russ joined Wilson Elser in 1982 out of law school and developed his service approach within a firm culture that values a high level of responsiveness and open communication with clients.

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