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.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SPONSORING WITNESS

April 23, 2013 § 2 Comments

The COA case of Estate of James D. Hodges, Deceased: Hodges v. Hodges, decided March 12, 2013, stands for the important proposition that, merely because you have an appraisal report, it does not mean that the judge can consider it.

The case involved a property dispute in an estate between Daniel, son of the decedent, and his step-mother, Susan. At a hearing in 2010, the then-sitting chancellor ordered Daniel to obtain appraisals of property in controversy, and that, if Susan was unhappy with the appraisal she could obtain her own. Daniel hired an appraiser, Livingston, to do the work. Susan, however, never got her own appraisals.

At trial in 2011, before another chancellor who replaced the original chancellor, Susan objected to admission of the appraisals on the ground that Daniel did not call the appraiser to sponsor and be cross examined about them. The judge ruled that they were admissible because the first chancellor had ordered them. No doubt he also pointed out that Susan could have gotten her own appraisals if she were not satisfied with Daniel’s, per the first judge’s explicit order. Susan appealed.

Judge Lee, for the court, stated:

¶8. This Court has stated, “Prior to its admission into evidence, a document or photograph must be authenticated.” Crutcher v. State, 68 So. 3d 724, 730 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). Mississippi Rule of Evidence 901(a) states that “authentication or identification as a condition precedent to admissibility is satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims.” One illustration in Rule 901(b)(1) is for testimony of a witness with knowledge that “a matter is what it is claimed to be.”

¶9. For Livingston to be called as a sponsoring witness under Rule 901, he would have to meet the requirements for an expert witness under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 702 because his testimony would be based on the “specialized knowledge” required for an appraiser. Under Rule 702, a witness with “specialized knowledge” may testify to his opinion if “(1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.”

¶10. When determining the admissibility of an expert’s testimony, the trial judge, applying a “modified Daubert standard[,] . . . must first determine whether expert testimony is relevant and, second, whether the proffered testimony is reliable.” Adcock v. Miss. Transp. Comm’n, 981 So. 2d 942, 946-947 (¶14) (Miss. 2008) (citing Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993)). Relevancy is determined by Mississippi Rule of Evidence 401 to be evidence that tends “to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Clearly, the appraiser’s evaluations of the properties are relevant to the determination of the property division, therefore meeting the first prong of the modified Daubert standard.

¶11. In order to determine reliability under the second prong of the Daubert standard, the party requesting the expert testimony to be admitted must offer proof “that the expert’s opinion is based upon scientific methods and procedures, not unsupported speculation.” Adcock, 981 So. 2d at 947 (¶16). The trial judge may look to factors including:

“whether the theory or technique can be and has been tested; whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; whether there is a high known or potential rate of error; whether there are standards controlling the technique’s operation; and whether the theory or technique enjoys general acceptance” within the expert’s particular field. Id. (quoting Miss. Transp. Comm’n v. McLemore, 863 So. 2d 31, 37 (¶13) (Miss. 2003)).

¶12. The trial judge abused its discretion when it allowed the appraisals to be admitted into evidence without the appraiser as a foundational witness under Rule 901. Furthermore, Daniel offered no proof of Livingston’s methods or procedures for appraising either property. None of the applicable reliability factors were considered prior to admitting the appraisals. Additionally, Susan never had the ability to cross-examine Livingston on his methods or procedures.

¶13. An error constitutes reversible error “when it affects the final result of the case and works adversely to a substantial right of the party assigning it.” Catholic Diocese of Natchez-Jackson v. Jaquith, 224 So. 2d 216, 221 (Miss. 1969). The trial judge relied on the appraisals to determine the division of the properties, therefore affecting the final result of the case. For this reason, we reverse the decision of the Simpson County Chancery Court.

A few points:

  • When Daniel got the appraisals he could have propounded requests for admission to Susan to get her to admit to the authenticity and accuracy, etc. of the appraisals so that he did not have to call a sponsor. If Susan denied the request, causing Daniel to incur expense to call the witness who did establish the authenticity and accuracy, then he could petition the court to order Susan to reimburse his expenses.
  • I would bet that the first chancellor’s order that Susan could obtain her own appraisals if she did not agree led everyone, second judge included, to believe that the burden was on Susan to do something if she did not agree. When she did not, it appeared that she had waived any objection. Only problem is, the first judge’s ruling did not relieve anyone from complying with the MRE.
  • Judge Lee’s analysis is a great template for how you need to evaluate proof you will need to establish some points at trial.
  • Think these things through. Instead of just stumbling into the court room on the date set for hearing, think ahead. Call opposing counsel and ask whether she is going to require you to call the expert. If she tells you that won’t be needed, and you get to trial and the other side reverses field, ask for a continuance to get the witness you need. In this case, I think counsel for Susan could easily have gotten a continuance for that purpose on the basis that the first judge’s ruling confused everyone.

EXPERT OPINION TESTIMONY: SOME BASICS

September 19, 2011 § 5 Comments

Experts often testify in chancery. They address child custody, business valuations, property appraisals, surveys, tax issues, handwriting, competency, medical and health matters, and many other subjects almost too varied to imagine. MRE 702 allows you to call a qualified witness who has “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge” that will assist the chancellor in understanding the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. 

The catch is that the witness must be (a) qualified, and (b) have scientific, technical or specialized knowledge that will assist the court in adjudicating the case. It’s up to you to make a record that your witness meets the criteria of the rule. 

You won’t get off the starting line, though, if you haven’t done your pre-trial work vis a vis your expert. Remember that if you are asked in discovery to identify your expert(s), you must do so not less than 60 days in advance of trial, per UCCR 1.10, or run the extremely likely risk that you will be denied the opportunity to call that witness as an expert. Merely including the name of an expert in a general witness list is not enough to meet the requirement of the rule. And if you are asked to provide the expert information required in MRCP 26(b)(4), you must timely provide it — all of it, in a responsive manner — or you may be left expert-less in that trial.

Calling an expert as a witness at trial is a two-phase process:

First, you must qualify the expert and tender the witness as an expert, at which point the other side will be given the opportunity to voir dire the witness as to qualifications to testify as an expert. The court will then hear any objections to the qualifications. If the court rules that the witness does have expert qualifications, you move to the next phase.

Second you take the expert testimony itself. Before you get into the substance of that testimony, though, you must establish that the expert’s opinions will be reliable, using the factors set out in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 US 579 (1993).

Here is the process, step by step:

  1. Identify the witness.
  2. Establish the witness’s knowledge, skill, experience, training and/or education that qualifies her as an expert.
  3. Tender the witness as an expert.
  4. Address any objections to qualifications.
  5. Have the witness testify about the facts and data upon which the opinion will be based. MRE 702(1) requires that the opinion must be based on “sufficient facts or data.”
  6. Have the witness establish by testimony the principles and methods she used in arriving at her opinion, and she must establish their reliability.
  7. Have the witness testify how she applied those principles and methods in this particular case, and why the method she used does produce reliable results in her field.
  8. Develop the expert opinion.

Some factors you might want to consider in developing whether the expert applied the principles and methods of his field reliably to the facts in your case:

  • Have the principles and methods used been tested, or can they?
  • Have the principles and methods been subject to professional critique, peer review, and publication?
  • What is the known error rate for the principles and methods, and what are the means to control or reduce the error rate? What measures were taken to control the error rate in this case?
  • What is the extent to which the principles and methods have been accepted in the field?
  • Is the opinion based on research or study that the expert did independent of the litigation?
  • Has the expert adequately addressed and accounted for alternative or contradictory explations? How did the expert rule them out?
  • Did the expert employ the same standards and techniques in reaching the opinion in this case that he does in the normal course of his professional work?
  • Is there a discrepancy between the data and the conclusions reached by the expert? How does the expert explain the discrepancy and rule out other conclusions?
  • How does the expert’s opinion tie in to the facts in this particular case?

Obviously the way you develop your expert’s testimony will depend both what is at issue in the case and the expert’s field of expertise. A child psychologist in a custody case will require a different approach than, for example, a handwriting expert in a will contest.

With respect to qualifications, it’s a good idea always to get the expert’s CV (curriculum vitae) and offer it into evidence. Once it gets into evidence, it may prompt counsel opposite into stipulating that it does, in fact, state the witness’s proposed qualifications, which may eliminate lengthy testimony. With no jury to impress, there’s no need to put on a show about the witness’s impressive credentials.

The court always has the discretion whether to allow an expert’s testimony at all. If the court finds that the subject matter of the opinion is not sufficiently scientific, technical or otherwise specialized, the court can rule that an expert need not be called. For example, if the judge or any other lay person can determine that the ground became wet after a rain, it is not necessary to have expert testimony on the point. Likewise, an expert on the law is unnecessary and superfluous because the trial judge is the expert on the law of the case (at least until the COA reviews it).

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