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Expert's creative terminology results in new injury trial

How important is it to have an expert witness use the correct language on the witness stand?

Incredibly so.

Attorneys rely on expert witnesses to put technical information into terms that jurors and judges can understand. They have to communicate exactly why something should or shouldn't have happened in clear, concise language -- but they can't take liberties.

That's what happened recently in a lawsuit involving the Southeastern PA Transportation Authority (SEPTA). SEPTA was sued by an employee who claimed that he was injured by an electrical jolt as he held onto a metal grab iron on the wall while one of the railcars approached its station. An exam by SEPTA's inspectors failed to show any defects that could have been responsible for the blue spark the employee claimed to see above his head prior to his injury.

During the court hearing, a former engineer/current safety professional was hired by the plaintiff to evaluate the accident. In the expert's report, he claimed that SEPTA was negligent by not insulating the grab irons to protect them from the unsafe "spillover electricity" caused by the railcars.

On the stand, however, he blamed something that wasn't even in his reports for the accident -- SEPTA's failure to make certain that rubber baffles placed between the railcars were spaced properly. Then, when questioned about the accuracy of his statements in his report, the expert admitted that "spillover electricity" was a fabricated term of his own.

Even though his testimony was struck by the judge, it may have made an impression on the jury. The jury awarded the plaintiff $500,000. SEPTA promptly asked for and received a new trial.

The appeals court has now affirmed that decision. The court said, in essence, that it believed the jury hadn't really disregarded what they'd already heard -- because there was no other evidence to support the injured conductor's claim.

Cases like this show how important it is to make certain that expert witnesses in personal injury cases know how to behave on the stand. Knowledge isn't necessarily enough to carry the case -- and a cavalier attitude toward accuracy can actually destroy one.

Source: PennRecord, "Court: Expert used made-up term 'spillover electricity' during SEPTA trial," Amanda Thomas, May 04, 2018

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