Assess Whether Your Witness Is Able to Counterpunch

Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm | Holland & Hart

Attorneys know the feeling: With some of your witnesses, you just want to keep it simple, encourage them to keep their heads down, and limit the possible damage. With any luck, they’ll get through it with minimal damage to your case. But for other witnesses, testimony is an opportunity. The right witness, and the prepared witness, will be able to say things that advance your case and make it harder for the other side to win. Preparing the right kind of witness is a chance to inflict some damage on the other side.

But how do you know when the witness you have is capable of safely leaving the world of “Yes or no,” and able to enter the world of the artful parry? If you fill the wrong vessel with too much confidence, they could end up missing the meaning of opposing counsel, they could say things that you don’t want in evidence, or they could take it too far by being too clever and too argumentative with the lawyer on the other side. The bottom line is, you need to consciously assess to see what your witness is capable of. If they’re fuzzy or fragile, then you probably want to keep their answers to a minimum. But if they’re tough and smart, then you want to teach them sensitive and smart ways to punch back on your adversary’s questions. It all starts with assessing the witness.

Assess Occupation and Mental Habits

When advising on jury selection, I always feel that if you know what someone does every day, five days a week, you’ve got a good start on knowing them. The same goes for witnesses. If someone works in a repetitive context where they aren’t called upon to exercise judgment very often, it will be hard for them to rise to the challenge of powerful testimony. But if someone works in a context where they’re expected to be analytical, sensitive, and professional, it will be less of a challenge. There are exceptions of course, in both categories, but I’ve found that executives, managers, doctors, and academics will, more often than not, have the native skills to be more thoughtful, assertive, and empowered in the ways they answer opposing counsel’s questions.

Assess Attitude

In addition to their capability and experience, it is also essential to assess their attitudes. Are they comfortable that they understand enough about the opposing counsel’s tactics and objectives, and about their own testimony, that they can feel comfortable pushing back against that adversary’s language and assumptions? Even if they could, they may not want to. Of course, part of the attorney’s role as a counsellor is to get them to the point that they will do as well as they can. But the legal process can be stressful, and if you add in the force of accusation for a defendant, the psychological barriers can be too high. Alternately, if you have someone who is a little too eager to mix it up with counsel, then they could easily come off as argumentative or evasive when they’re really trying to be assertive. Ultimately, you’re looking for a witness who can be savvy, but also patient and calmly persistent.

Test

Ultimately, the only way to be sure that a witness can effectively testify in a way that moves from ‘not hurting’ to ‘helping’ your case is to see them do it. Hold several practice sessions where you don’t just talk about testifying, but you actually practice it. Play the role of the lawyer on the other side, using as much as you know about their substance and their style, and see how your witness handles it. For very important testimony, I have found that three meetings is often the right number: the first to assess the witness and teach sensitivity in responding, the second to practice it and really nail it down, and the third to see if it sticks after they leave and come back.

Many attorneys will say that giving testimony is largely an act of defense: like being on the receiving side in a volleyball game, you can’t score, but you can prevent them from scoring. That is a largely accurate and useful sentiment. Still, when your witness has the ability, attitude, and training, they could use some assertiveness in both preventing those scores, and maybe scoring a point or two back. It all starts with assessing the witness.

Genuine Dispute Summary Judgment Reversed for Abuse of Discretion and Trial of Fact Questions About Expert Opinions

Christopher Kendrick and Valerie A. Moore | Haight Brown & Bonesteel

In Fadeeff v. State Farm General Ins. Co. (No. A155691, filed 5/22/20 ord. pub. 6/8/20), a California appeals court held that triable issues of fact and the trial court’s failure to address a request for a continuance precluded summary judgment for an insurer under the genuine dispute doctrine.

In Fadeeff, the policyholders made a claim to State Farm for smoke damage to their home from the 2015 Valley Fire in Hidden Valley Lake, California. With State Farm’s approval, the insureds retained the restoration company, ServPro, to assist with smoke and soot mitigation. State Farm documented smoke and soot on the interior walls, ceilings and carpeting, and on all exterior elevations, including on the deck and handrail. State Farm made a series of payments on the claim totaling about $50,000.

The insureds then hired a public adjuster and submitted supplemental claims for further dwelling repairs and additional contents replacement, totaling approximately $75,000. State Farm responded by using its own independent adjuster to investigate, who was neither licensed as an adjuster, nor as a contractor. State Farm also retained forensic consultants for the structure and the HVAC system, but neither the independent adjuster nor the consultants were aware that State Farm had an internal operation guide for the use of third-party experts in handling first party claims, which guidelines were therefore not followed. In addition, the consultants made allegedly superficial inspections, with one attributing smoke and soot damage to other sources of combustion, including the insureds’ exterior propane barbecue, an internal wood fireplace and wood stove and candles that had been burned in the living room. None of the consultants asked the insureds when they had last used any of the sources of combustion.

State Farm denied the supplemental claim and in the subsequent bad faith lawsuit, State Farm, relying on its use of experts, moved for summary judgment on the ground that the “genuine dispute” doctrine defeats the bad faith claim where an insurer reasonably relies upon expert opinions in reaching a claim decision. The insureds’ opposition was based on declarations from their own adjuster and expert, who opined that the work performed to date had not completely removed soot throughout the structure, or the HVAC system. The declaration from the insureds’ expert also refuted the opinions of State Farm’s expert. Plus, the insureds made a request for a continuance under Code of Civil Procedure section 437c(h), which authorizes a court to order a continuance for additional discovery, on affidavits of necessity.

At the hearing on the summary judgment motion, the trial court did not address the request for continuance. The court sustained State Farm’s objections to portions of the insureds’ declarations and reports, which gutted the insureds’ evidence contradicting State Farm’s expert, and granted State Farm’s motion. On appeal, however, the appeals court found both factual questions and an abuse of discretion by the trial court, mandating reversal.

Regarding the former, the Fadeeff court said that the use of experts does not automatically insulate an insurer from bad faith liability under the genuine dispute doctrine. (Citing Guebara v. Allstate Ins. Co. (9th Cir. 2001) 237 F.3d 987, 994.) In particular, the Fadeeff court said that where the dispute is purely factual, such as differing opinions of experts, whether there was a genuine dispute can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. (Citing Chateau Chamberay Homeowners Assn. v. Associated International Ins. Co. (2001) 90 Cal.App.4th 335, 348.) The Fadeeff court quoted Chateau Chamberay’s list of circumstances where a biased investigation claim should go to jury: (1) the insurer was guilty of misrepresenting the nature of the investigatory proceedings; (2) the insurer’s employee’s lied during the depositions or to the insured; (3) the insurer dishonestly selected its experts; (4) the insurer’s experts were unreasonable; and (5) the insurer failed to conduct a thorough investigation. (Quoting Chateau Chamberay, supra, at 348-349.)

The Fadeeff court pointed out that the insureds had presented evidence that part of their claim had been denied by State Farm in violation of the California fair claim handling regulations, based on ServPro’s work power washing the outside of the structure, which had caused the paint to peel. State Farm had denied that part of the claim on the ground that it, as well as damage to carpets and wall coverings, was not smoke or fire damage, and excluded as wear, tear or deterioration. But the insureds argued that the damage to the exterior caused by power washing was required to be covered under California Code of Regulations, title 10, section 2695.9(a)(1), as “consequential physical damage incurred in making the repair or replacement not otherwise excluded by the policy [which should] be included in the loss.” The court also noted the problem of the internal operation guide, and the State Farm independent adjuster’s failure to follow it. That and several other inconsistencies lead the Fadeeff court to conclude that there were triable issues regarding whether State Farm could have reasonably relied on its experts in denying the supplemental claims.

The Fadeeff court also reversed the summary adjudication on punitive damages, finding that State Farm failed to carry its burden to show that the Fadeeffs could not prove that State Farm acted with an absence of malice, oppression or fraud. (Civ. Code, § 3294, subd. (a); § 437c, subd. (f)(1); Basich v. Allstate Ins. Co. (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 1112, 1118.) The Fadeeff court found that “The fact that an individual plaintiff may not believe that the people at State Farm ’wanted to harm you or hurt you intentionally’ does not conclusively answer the question whether State Farm intentionally misrepresented or concealed a material fact, or acted with knowing disregard of the rights of others.” (Citing CACI No. 3946—Punitive Damages.)

More fundamentally, the Fadeeff court found that reversal was required in any case, because of the trial court’s failure to address the request for a continuance, either at the hearing or in its ruling. The court stated that whether or not to grant a continuance under section 437c(f) is a matter within the court’s discretion, and is reviewed for abuse of discretion. But the Fadeeff court stated that reversal was mandated because a trial court’s failure to exercise discretion is itself an abuse of discretion. (Citing Kim v. Euromotors West/The Auto Galley (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 170, 176.)

Being an Expert Witness with “Nothing” to Witness

Advise & Consult, Inc.

Fire ravaged neighborhood.

Typically, when we are hired as a construction expert witness, we are given some preliminary documents and plan on a site visit.  We are then able to “witness” many of the damaged properties (if the damage has not already been repaired) and start gathering data on what caused the damage, who the responsible parties are, and what are the estimated costs to repair the damage – in a simplified example – to find a resolution for all parties involved and move on.

There are other instances, however, where we are hired as a construction expert witness and expected to find a resolution with “nothing” to witness.  It seems increasingly more often, large wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are ravaging many areas, resulting in massive damage to life and property, leaving little to nothing behind over hundreds of thousands of acres.  People have suffered catastrophic losses of most if not all personal possessions including property documentation.  These clients are emotionally worn out and completely overwhelmed with starting over and finding a place of stability for their family with so many questions left unanswered.  The experience is harrowing and painful to revisit and being asked to provide documentation or answer questions about this loss causes frustration and pours salt on yet to be healed open wounds.

Law firm administration do their best to gather as much info as possible for the expert witnesses to create their report. The problem is they know what information is needed to fully support their claim for damages but do not know exactly what is needed to satisfy the insurance company and this can add months to the process – only adding to the frustration and anxiety of firm staff and property owners.  Here lies the bottleneck and the client’s frustration – being asked to relive the pain trying to gather information that is not needed.  Multiply this by the potential hundreds of clients that you have signed to represent, and this can be very frustrating and nerve wracking for staff trying to deal with hyper emotional clients and finding that they are not moving through the process in the most efficient way – causing everyone involved only an increase in stress and anxiety.

When you have a qualified expert witness firm that knows the exact information that is needed for an accurate rebuild estimate report, it streamlines the entire process from beginning to end for the clients, the law firm and/or insurance company.  This information can be gathered through a short 30-60-minute phone interview and paired with public, online sites that can provide most, if not all, of the necessary information in a good picture of the loss.  When other documentation is available from the client, those documents can be dragged and dropped by the clients straight to the expert witness.  This can all be done with a 3-5 business day turn around.  This process is efficient, accurate, and less painful, making it a win for the client, a win for the law firm and/or insurance company, and a win for the expert witness.  If your expert witness firm cannot provide this type of resolution, why are they your expert witness firm?

Sanctions Award Against Pro Se Plaintiff Upheld

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    The plaintiff’s failure to timely name an expert witness in his bad faith action led to sanctions being awarded against him in favor of the insurer. Black v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2477 (Cal. Ct. App. April 23, 2020).

    After Black’s claim was denied by Fireman’s Fund, he communicated with company through letters, emails and phone conversations. Black complained that Fireman’s Fund handled his claim improperly, engaged in illegal activities and had ties to the Nazi regime in Germany. Fireman’s Fund sued Black alleging that his communications amounted to civil extortion, interference with contractual relations, interference with prospective economic advantage, and unfair business practices. Fireman’s Fund eventually dismissed its complaint without prejudice. 

    Black, however, had filed a cross-complaint in which he asserted a number of claims, including bad faith. Black designated attorney Randy Hess as an expert on insurance claims. Over the next year and a half, Fireman’s Fund repeatedly attempted to take Hess’s deposition. In March 2018, Fireman’s Fund moved to compel the deposition or exclude the testimony. The court set a July 20, 2018 deadline for the disposition to take place or else the testimony would be excluded. 

    In mid-July 2018, a new law firm entered its appearance for Black, and asked to postpone Hess’s deposition to July 20. Fireman’s Fund agreed. Then the firm asked for a 45-day extension for Black to locate and designate a new expert to replace Hess. Fireman’s Fund declined. Black moved ex parte to extend the expert discovery period. The court denied the motion. 

    Black filed another motion, seeking “a short continuance to allow a further expert designation and expert deposition.” Fireman’s Fund opposed the motion and sought $7,862.50 in sanctions. The court denied the motion, finding that Black was given 18 months’ notice of Hess’s reluctance or refusal to act as an expert. The court also awarded sanctions. 

    The Court of Appeals affirmed. In April 2017, early in the discovery period, Hess told Black that he would not act as an expert or appear at a deposition unless he was paid. A year later, Hess told Black he had withdrawn as an expert because he had not been paid. 

    Between April 2017 and July 2018, Black could have reached an agreement with Hess or found another expert. He failed to do either, forcing Fireman’s Fund to spend additional time and money to pursue and protect its discovery interests. Sanctions were warranted because in his motion, Black did not identify an additional expert witness, making the motion little more than another effort to delay the proceeding.

Great Expert Witnesses are Vital

Advise & Consult, Inc.

Construction and Property Insurance cases can be very complex and difficult for attorneys, juries, judges and those outside of the construction industry. Expert witnesses, thusly, are important in obtaining a favorable verdict. During the pre-trial preparation it can become vital for a great expert witness to inform the attorney of where their client stands and what the strengths and weaknesses of the case are.

As the case progresses through depositions and into trial, a great expert witness is vital in explaining these complex construction principles to juries and judges. Not only does the expert witness need to be knowledgeable about construction, but it is vital that they connect with the jury and judge by being personable, friendly, trustworthy and concise, but also being able to break the complex details of the case down to bite size, understandable concepts that people without construction experience can at least determine culpability.

Amy Currotto, from Merlin Law Group, says this about expert witnesses:

In establishing damages and liability under the policy, expert-witness testimony before a jury is one of the most important tools. An entire case theory can ride on the back of successful expert witness testimony, which is why policyholder lawyers should begin to consult with experts from the very beginning of a case. It cannot be overstated that winning or losing a property case often depends on the credibility and admissibility of the expert testimony. This is because without expert testimony, many property insurance cases cannot be proven.

Courts have held, when a matter is beyond the common knowledge of an average person, an expert witness opinion will be required to testify on the essential issue of causation. Policyholders who fail to present competent expert testimony on the issue often fail to prove their case which may ultimately lead to dismissal.

Richard Friedman and Patrick Malone wrote a book – Rules of the Road, A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability states “to win cases, you must defeat complexity, confusion, and ambiguity, or they will defeat you.”

“Battle of the experts” can make the jurors skeptical, but also truly appreciate hearing the testimony of a highly educated and well-informed witness who can credibly explain to them the complicated or technical aspects of the case. Clarity is key. Being “a teacher” is vital for the expert witness to explain their findings in a way that can be commonly understood and your case can rest on this ability. Cases have been lost based on an expert’s inability to effectively communicate their opinions and methodologies to the jury. Communication can help you rise to success or it can lead to your downfall, not just for the average person, but also for an expert witness.