Witness testimony is an important component of every personal injury case, no matter what type of injury you have suffered. Eyewitness testimony can help the jury visualize what happened when the injury occurred, while expert witness testimony provides specialized background information and can formulate opinions on what the long-term complications of your injury may be.
Both types of witness testimony can help you gain credibility with the jury. This is important because the jury ultimately decides the amount of damages to which you are entitled.
Though it is a necessary component of proving negligence, it is oftentimes difficult to prove fault after an incident has occurred. This is especially true as injury claims can become a heated battle of “he said, she said.” In this instance, it is important to have witnesses that can supply details about what happened so that the jury can visualize how the accident actually occurred.
Types of Witness Testimony
As mentioned above, two main types of witnesses can provide testimony. These witnesses help establish credibility when you are a plaintiff in a personal injury case. While both can be absolutely critical to the success or failure of your case, eyewitnesses and expert witnesses perform very different functions.
An eyewitness is another person who saw the injury occur with her own eyes and is able to objectively verbalize what happened afterwards. It is important to have an objective eyewitness because it will give your case credibility. While having your passenger testify as to what happened will help your case, an eyewitness will likely have no vested interest in the way your case turns out.
If you see an eyewitness at the scene of your accident or injury, ask her if she would be willing to remain at the scene to speak with officers or give you her information so you can contact her later.
If you are unable to speak to the witness at the scene, there are other ways to obtain eyewitness testimony later on. For example, in the event of a road accident (such as an injured pedestrian or car crash), police officers usually arrive on scene shortly after the incident and take names and contact information of all the people that were in the area when the police arrived. (Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have specific procedures for requesting an accident report.)
Eyewitnesses can provide extremely useful testimony on issues of fault in many contexts. For example, in traffic accidents, it is often difficult to tell who was at fault, and many times both drivers are so shaken up that their memories are hazy. An eyewitness who can provide details of the accident from a third party perspective in this instance could be a lifesaver.
Eyewitness accounts are also important in the medical malpractice context (such as a having a nurse eyewitness that could recount a critical error on the doctor’s part). In each of these scenarios, the eyewitness may provide key details that could substantially strengthen your case.
Although (literally) anyone off the street can be an eyewitness, becoming an expert witness is far more complicated. An expert witness is someone who has special skills and/or knowledge gained from training or experience. You must be able to prove these special skills and knowledge to establish the witness as an expert prior to testifying on the stand.
You need to choose your expert witnesses based on her similarities to the defendant. For example, in a medical malpractice case in which a doctor operated on the wrong part of your knee during knee surgery, the expert witness your attorney chooses to testify on your behalf would be either a surgeon and/or knee specialist.
Because routine acts and standards of care differ among specialties, it is crucial to find an expert that is as similar to the defendant as possible. Just being another medical doctor or another nurse is not enough to qualify a witness as an expert in your case.
In most medical malpractice cases, the law requires plaintiffs to use the testimony of an expert witness to determine whether a physician breached the applicable standard of care.
Note: Non-physicians can also be qualified experts if they have special knowledge of the issue at hand.
Medical expert witnesses are not the only expert witnesses that testify in personal injury cases. There are expert witnesses to testify about everything from life expectancy to lifetime lost wages to a lesser quality of life. In addition to helping the jury understand the complicated legal terminology, these experts also help lay the foundation of the plaintiff’s injury and can explain how much it will cost the plaintiff in the span of a lifetime.
Medical Malpractice: Physician Expert Witnesses and Procedure
Due to the overwhelming amount of jurisdictional differences and endless specifics, medical malpractice is a subject all on its own. Each state qualifies expert witnesses in a similar manner with an overall goal of having witness testimony that is helpful and reliable. Medical malpractice procedure among jurisdictions differs greatly. We discuss Pennsylvania and New Jersey expert witness laws briefly below.
Physician Expert Witness Qualification
Though each state has different specifications, all states have a similar way of deciding who may testify as an expert witness. In Pennsylvania, for example, 40 Pa. C.S. § 1303.512 provides that a physician expert witness must meet the following standards:
- The witness must have sufficient education, training, knowledge, and experience to provide credible, competent testimony.
- Witness must have an unrestricted physician’s license to practice medicine.
- Witness must be competent in (and familiar with) the standard of care for the issue in question.
- The witness must practice in the same area of medicine as the defendant doctor.
- The witness must have the same or similar credentials as the defendant physician.
The qualifications to become an expert witness in New Jersey are much more lax. According to the American Bar Association, a court must merely be “satisfied that the expert has a basis in knowledge, skill, education, training, or experience to be able to form an opinion that can aid the jury on a subject that is beyond its ken.”
As always, there are exceptions, but the rules above provide a general guideline for becoming qualified as a physician expert witness in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Non-Physician Expert Witnesses
In Pennsylvania, if the witness is not a physician, a more relaxed test determines if the individual can qualify as an expert. This general test asks if the witness has any specialized knowledge on the subject at issue. If so, the witness may testify as an expert, and it is up to the jury to determine how much weight that expert’s testimony holds.
Medical Malpractice Procedure
New Jersey’s medical malpractice procedure is built on the same legal principles as the Pennsylvania statute described above and has many similarities. In order to file a medical malpractice claim in New Jersey, you must first consult with a physician expert witness to obtain what is called an “Affidavit of Merit.” This document serves to show that a doctor in the same specialty as the defendant physician believes the standard of care was breached, and that breach resulted in the plaintiff’s injury. This document is due 60 days after the complaint is filed, but it is best to obtain the affidavit before filing the complaint.
Contact an Attorney
If you have suffered from the negligence of another, let us help you seek justice. Our attorneys will work with you to ensure you understand the significance of witnesses and provide you with competent representation. Contact the attorneys at Cordisco & Saile LLC at 215-642-2335 today.