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Life & Work: A Lawyer and an Engineer Enter a Courtroom …

Expert Witness: An expert witness or professional witness is an individual who testifies in a court case. The witness is classified as an “expert” because the individual possesses a specialized knowledge that pertains to the particular subject matter involved in the case. (trial.laws.com/role-of-expert-witness)

Reinvention: Traveling the Road from Industry to Education

“A Lawyer and an Engineer Enter a Courtroom …” was written by Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board Chair.

I was first introduced to the above definition many years ago, as a young, naive associate professor. A well-respected senior colleague requested my help with a legal case he was working on. At the time, I was unaware that such a role existed, as the numerous law and forensic TV shows had yet to become popular. I was intrigued by both the scientific nature of the work and, to be totally honest, the lucrative paycheck associated with it.

The case involved an injury to a man’s hand that happened while attempting to open a doorknob with a faulty locking mechanism. My colleague had been asked to provide scientific evidence indicating how the injury could have occurred. He was a chemical engineer, however, and didn’t think his qualifications would be allowable in court. Yet I, as a biomedical engineer specializing in biomechanics of joint function, did have the appropriate knowledge to research and support evidence on how the injury could have occurred. What I didn’t have knowledge of was how the entire legal process worked. Calling on my colleague’s extensive knowledge of the process, I used him as a sounding board for everything from what to charge per hour, what work I could charge for, to what a deposition entailed and how a trial was handled.

My comfort level for performing the research was very high. I had been doing biomechanics research for several years, and I was comfortable reading background articles on wrist anatomy, function, and injury. I understood how to calculate forces and moments created on the different structures in the wrist while turning and pulling a doorknob. I knew how to present this information in a cohesive and understandable way to another engineer or to a layperson. What I didn’t understand was what came next in the process: the deposition.

Deposition: A deposition is part of permitted pretrial discovery (investigation), set up by an attorney for one of the parties to a lawsuit demanding the sworn testimony of the opposing party (defendant or plaintiff), a witness to an event, or an expert intended to be called at trial by the opposition. (Law.com)

When you are hired as an expert witness, you are retained by one of the opposing lawyers on the case. Obviously, they intend for your conclusions to support their case. During the deposition, you are questioned by both lawyers. The purpose of the questioning by the opposing lawyer is to discredit you and to determine how you will act if required to appear in court. This part I was not the least bit prepared for. The opposing lawyer began by questioning my background by going through my CV (or resume) line by almost every line. In my case, questions such as “Why did you stay at the same university for all three of your degrees? Did no other schools accept you?” and “Why do you belong to the Society of Women Engineers?” (yes, he picked this one out specifically from the nine or 10 organizations I belong to).

Then he questioned the integrity of the scientific work I had completed. What were my conclusions, how did I reach those conclusions, what methods did I use, etc. In this case, he actually pulled out a piece of paper and asked me to run through one of the calculations I did to explain it to him. During this questioning, they are trying to trip you up and if “your” lawyer has not prepared you well or if they are not vocal during this deposition, you can easily get caught in a slip of the tongue or their clever wording of questions. They can also ask about things that seem to have no relationship to the case; for example: “How many different places have you lived?” “Have you ever been a defendant in a lawsuit?” “Are you romantically involved with anyone?” These “fishing” questions are simply intended to throw you off and to see how you react.

The entire process is highly confrontational and, if you consider becoming an expert witness, this should be something you enjoy or are good at. It was not something I enjoyed. As I mentioned previously, however, the pay can be very good. After this case, I actually agreed to two more. Fortunately, I never had to go through more than the deposition stage; I never had to appear in court. It was close on the third case. I was waiting outside the courtroom for them to call me in when the defendant perjured himself on the stand (he lied and they could prove it). I couldn’t leave until they settled the case two hours later, but, because you get paid for every hour except the ones you are actually in the courtroom, it wasn’t as unpleasant as it might seem.

Nevertheless, after three times as an expert witness, it was clear that the confrontational nature of the process was not a good fit for my nature. Wiser and well compensated for the experience, I decided to use my spare time in other ways.

Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, is an associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. Chair of the SWE Magazine editorial board, Dr. Verstraete was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.

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