Opinions: Everybody has One

April 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

I won’t repeat the old saying about opinions being like a particular part of the body, everybody has one. Or maybe I just did.

Lay opinion testimony seems to draw objections like flies to day-old watermelon, but the rule on lay witnesses offering their opinions is pretty straightforward. MRE 701 says:

If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness’s testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (a) rationally based on the perception of the witness, (b) helpful to the clear understanding of the testimony or the determination of a fact in issue, and (c) not based on scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge within the scope of [testimony by experts].

That is all there is to it. Oh, and MRE 704 abolishes the old “ultimate issue” rule, which means that, if the lay person’s testimony meets the criteria of R701, it matters not at all whether it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact.

So, if the witness is opining “rationally based” on his or her own perception, and it aids the fact-finder, and is not based on scientific or technical knowledge, it should come in.

Some examples:

  • The detective opined that a particular document was not on a hard drive that he had examined. The court found it to be valid lay opinion because almost everybody nowadays has some knowledge of computer hard drives. Boone v. State, 811 So.2d 401 (Miss. 2001).
  • Lay witnesses may offer their opinion whether someone had too much to drink or was intoxicated. Havard v. State, 800 So.2d 1193 (Miss. App. 2001).
  • A lay witness may offer an opinion as to how fast, in mph, a person was driving, based on what he observed. Moore v. State, 816 So.2d 1022 (Miss. App. 2002).
  • A licensed counselor could not offer lay opinion testimony about whether the wife was addicted to internet pornography because he did not have personal knowledge of the extent of her use of the internet. Bower v. Bower, 758 So.2d 405 (Miss. 2005).

Remember that if you try to offer lay opinion testimony and the judge sustains an objection to the offer, you must preserve the point by making an offer of proof. If you don’t, you can’t argue the point on appeal. See, Redhead v. Entergy Miss., Inc., 828 So.2d 801 (Miss. App. 2001).

Don’t assume that if your expert witness is excluded that you will be able to get that witness’s same testimony as lay opinion. As the Bower case above illustrates, the lay witness must have some perception of the event — some personal knowledge — and if he does not, his testimony would be inadmissible. Many experts have only theoretical knowledge upon which to base an opinion.

One mistake inexperienced lawyers make is to ask lay witnesses who actually saw or experienced an event their opinions about it. Most of the time it is far more powerful and effective to ask the witness to relate what she saw, felt, smelled, or heard. For example: “Can you tell me whether Johnny was dying?” is far less effective than to ask, “Tell us what you observed about his head when you arrived.” Answer: “His face was smashed up; his skull was cracked open so you could see his brains, he was covered with blood; blood was spattered on the wall behind his head, his eyes were rolled back, and he wasn’t breathing.”

Lay opinion testimony can be a useful tool in many trials, particularly in family law cases. Standing alone it may not carry the day for you, but it could be just the featherweight of advantage you need to tip the scales in a close case.

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