Ongoing Questions with Expert Evidence
In wills, trusts, and estates litigation, much hinges upon expert evidence. In a will challenge that is based upon alleged testamentary incapacity, both the objector and propounder of the will would be prudent to enlist a capacity assessor. A party suspicious of undue influence may wish to consult a physician, a police officer, or some other party who could be privy to abuse. In a contested passing of accounts, an expert investor can speak to the soundness of a trustee’s investments.
Though in theory expert evidence should clarify the points of contention, in practice it can sometimes render matters murkier and more uncertain. For instance, what happens if two equally distinguished handwriting experts draw opposite conclusions? What if a coroner’s findings contradict the preponderance of other evidence?
Another concern is experts’ impartiality, as evidenced by Wilton v. Koestlmaier, wherein one party unsuccessfully charged an expert witness with advocating for the other side. Courts have long been apprehensive that some experts may (perhaps unwittingly) be kinder with the parties with whom they interact and from whom they collect their bills. In 1873, Sir George Jessel, M.R., wrote:
“There is a natural bias to do something serviceable for those who employ you and adequately remunerate you. It is very natural, and it is so effectual, that we constantly see persons, instead of considering themselves witnesses, rather consider themselves as the paid agents of the person who employs them.”
One possible fix for this source of apprehension is to have both parties deal with the same expert. At the very least, litigators should not employ the same expert to too great an extent, which might appear as a “red flag”.
Courts have also looked into the timing for delivery of expert reports. The Rules of Civil Procedure prescribe that expert reports are served no less than 90 days before the pre-trial conference (or 60 days for responding parties’ reports). Oftentimes, however, parties should exchange their reports well before these deadlines, for once parties receive these reports, they have a much better idea of the relative strength of their positions, which may steer them towards settlement. In Ismail v. Ismail, Grace J. spoke to this:
“How can the parties’ lawyers advise their clients concerning settlement without knowing their case and the one they must meet? How can the parties make informed decisions?”
Too many experts can increase costs exponentially (especially if the experts are famous or from faraway places), but too few experts could lead to a scantiness of evidence. As a nice medium, the Australians have come up with the practice of “hot tubbing” experts—which, despite its fun name, does not involve splashing, shouting, or the unusual combination of horn-rimmed spectacles with bathing suits. Rather, “hot tubbing” refers to having a panel of experts questioned together, which can allow for an identification of the points of agreement and disagreement and more lively discussion.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy your day!
Suzana Popovic-Montag and Devin McMurtry