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Witnesses - Expert and Lay Witness

Lawsuits involve a story with two different sides. Each side is attempting to prove that their side is right and that they should be the prevailing party. 

There are a number of ways in which both sides get to tell their stories when there is a dispute. The first step in many cases is that the party that believes they were wronged (plaintiff) contacts the alleged wrongdoer (defendant) and relates their version of the facts and states why they believe they are entitled to compensation. This is often done in a demand letter. The defendant will likely respond either in writing or with a telephone call. 

If, after discussions, the parties are unable to resolve their dispute, the plaintiff might file a lawsuit. To initiate a lawsuit, the plaintiff will file a written complaint with the court which has jurisdiction over the claim. The complaint will set forth the plaintiff's position by stating the facts the plaintiff believes to be most beneficial to his/her case. The defendant will then respond with a written answer which will dispute the allegations in the complaint. 

Once they pass this initial phase, discovery begins. Discovery is the process by which each side gathers information from each other and from witnesses. The information discovered is what will be presented at trial. One of the key components in any case, or trial, is witnesses. Witnesses are people who have knowledge of the events involved in the case, or the underlying theory involved in the case, and who will testify to that knowledge. Witnesses provide their information by testifying either at a deposition or at trial. Their testimony will be under oath, meaning that they are promising before a court that their testimony is true.  There are two types of witnesses: expert and lay. 

Expert Witnesses 

An expert is a person who has in-depth knowledge about a certain topic or who is skilled in a certain area. We frequently rely on experts in our daily lives. Most people cannot put a roof on a house, they hire a roofer. A roofer is an expert in fixing, removing and installing roofs. Most people hire a mechanic to diagnose and fix their cars; mechanics are experts in their fields. In both of these examples, the expert most likely gained their skills and knowledge through training and/or education. 

In the legal field, an expert witness is similar. Expert witnesses have knowledge about topics based on their experience in a field or through their studies. Expert witnesses can be experts based on a number of factors including: education, specialized training, or their currently working, or having previously worked, in a field or profession that relates to the case.

Trials, and what is admissible at trial, are governed by Rules of Evidence. Cases brought in federal court are governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) apply, while cases brought in state court are governed by that state’s rules of evidence. 

Expert witnesses are permitted to testify in court as long as they meet the 4 qualifications under FRE 702. FRE 702 requires that:

  1. the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine facts 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.  

Expert witnesses are used to help a judge or jury understand the complicated, technical, issues of a case. For example, in a medical malpractice case, an expert witness can be used to testify to the duty, or standard, of care that a medical professional or healthcare facility owes to a patient. That expert can give his/her opinion as to whether a medical professional and/or healthcare facility’s actions fell below the standard of care, and therefore breached the duty owed to the patient in the case. North Carolina law requires that an expert testify in all medical malpractice cases. 

Lay Witnesses

The term lay witness refers to any witness who is not an expert witness. Typically lay witnesses testify about things to which they have personal knowledge, like things that they have personally observed. In most cases, lay witnesses will not be allowed to testify about things that they heard from someone else or give their opinions. 

One of the most common cases involving witnesses are car accident cases. If there was someone who was present and saw the car accident, that person will likely be called to testify as a witness. A witness who was standing on the side of the road and saw one car fail to stop, at a stop sign or a red light, and hit another car is very valuable. In that case, the witness is an independent person, who has no interest in which side prevails. That witness's testimony could go a long way toward helping a case resolve. In a clear cut case, it might even help the parties resolve the claim before going to trial. 

Using the same car accident example, now assume that the person standing on the side of the road was looking down at a phone and did not actually see the accident, rather he/she only looked up upon hearing a crash. That person could still be a witness but they would not be able to testify that one car ran a stop sign or red light, they would only be able to testify to things they actually witnessed, like that they heard a crash and where the vehicles were. In this example, this witness would be less valuable than the first witness who actually saw what happened. 

Let Our Charlotte Attorneys Review Your Case

The Charlotte, North Carolina based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC  are experienced attorneys. They understand the law and can help you determine if witness testimony is necessary in your case.  Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation. 

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