Hopefully this article will be helpful to product liability and personal injury attorneys; both plaintiff and defendant.
I am a mechanical engineer and an expert witness. I have worked on many product liability and personal injury cases over the years. In some of the lawsuits I have worked on I was brought into the situation early. In others, I was not brought into the case until years after it was filed and had gone through many hearings and motions. Given a choice between the two, I would prefer to be brought into the case as early as possible. In this article I will discuss five good reasons to get an expert involved early on in your lawsuit.
Reason 1: Scene Preservation
The first reason is a little selfish of me, but also very helpful to the cases I work on. On the cases where I am brought in late, I often find that the incident scene was not well-preserved. OSHA investigators and police officers do their job well, but you can’t expect them to think like an engineer or an expert and preserve the things that will be important to your case. There have been a few times where I had wished that the police officer or the OSHA investigator had just moved a few feet in the other direction before taking a picture so that I could see a certain component on a machine, or the position of some key piece of evidence. Having an expert involved from the very beginning allows them to get the pictures and measurements of the things they think will be important to the case.
As an example, I got a call the day of an incident where some very large glass sheets had fallen off of a semi-trailer while the driver was preparing the glass for unloading at the destination site. Unfortunately, the glass fell on the driver and buried him under hundreds of pounds of broken glass. He was severely injured and died in the hospital a few days after the incident. But, because I was called the day it happened, I was able to drive out to the incident scene that night and take some pictures of the scene before the OSHA investigation the next day. Being at a nearly untouched incident scene yielded some important insights into what went wrong with the trailer and allowed the case to settle within a few weeks, and bringing some needed peace to the driver’s widow and children.
Reason 2: Saving Time and Faster Payouts
Good experts aren’t cheap, but having an expert involved early can often help settle a case quickly, before the expert and legal fees start to pile up on both sides. Whether you are a plaintiff’s or defendant’s attorney, knowing early what your best arguments are, or if you even have a case, can save everyone a lot of time and money.
Getting an expert involved early can also prevent the case from dragging on and can short-cut a lot of problems. One case I worked on involved a forklift driver being injured because the truck he was unloading crept away from the dock and the forklift and the driver fell to the ground. I wasn’t brought into the case until years after the suit was filed. Even with the limited information I had at the late stage of the suit, I was able to present a lot of good opinions that were new to the attorney. Had I been brought in shortly after filing suit I could have provided those opinions and helped the attorney make better arguments from the beginning. That likely would have helped them settle the case soon after it was filed.
Reason 3: Prevent Spoilation of Evidence
This one is closely related to reason 1, but slightly different. Many times, OSHA inspectors and the police finish their investigations and the equipment owner figures that everything can go back to normal and puts the equipment back into service. This changes the state of the machine and may even involve repairs of damaged parts. Often this will remove or alter the condition that introduced the error, spoiling the evidence. An expert can inspect the equipment with a more technical eye, provide some important perspective, and help preserve the evidence that will be key to the case. The expert can also let you know if the equipment is safe to put back in service.
Reason 4: Strategy Planning
There are often good arguments to be made on both sides of a case. Knowing which arguments deserve your attention is a valuable bit of information. An expert can give you valuable guidance as to what arguments are going to be the best to spend your time on. Getting this perspective early will prevent you from going down avenues that lead nowhere.
Reason 5: Better Depositions
Sometimes experts “speak a different language” than attorneys. If you have an expert on the case early, they can help you prepare for depositions of key people. The expert can help you craft lines of questioning that will be clear and extract information you might not otherwise get.
As an example, I was brought into a case shortly before the general contractor 30(b)(6) deposition on a case involving a construction worker being run over by a rough terrain forklift on the construction site. The attorney wanted help preparing for the deposition so he could ask the right questions. I was able to provide him a long list of questions and topics to help him get the most from the deposition. When I was writing my report on that case a year later, I relied heavily on the testimony gathered from that deposition. If the attorney hadn’t asked for help preparing for that deposition, I may not have had good testimony to rely on to support my opinions.
Getting an expert involved early on in your case will help your case go much more smoothly. It can also make things easier on the expert. All of these things can lead to shorter cases, faster payouts, and better compensation for your client. So next time you start a case, don’t hesitate to get an expert involved from the very beginning.
About the Author:
Cameron Orr is the Engineering Manager at Alpine Engineering & Design, Inc. He is a licensed PE, a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) in comprehensive practice, and is a Certified Fluid Power Hydraulic Specialist. He has worked on the design of numerous products including dump trucks, trailers, aerial lifts, refuse equipment, and specialty lifting products. He also works as an expert witness.