How to Be an Effective Expert Witness in a Construction Dispute

Kent B. Scott | Babcock Scott & Babcock, PC | June 28, 2018

Being an expert witness in a construction dispute can be a difficult and stressful experience, but one that is made easier by following a helpful set of rules that govern the process. An expert witness is placed in a very controlled environment where every question is calculated and precise. This setting is atypical of daily life and as a result, being a good witness will take practice and refinement over time. Faced with the task of being an expert witness in a construction dispute, it’s not just about intelligence and experience. Instead it’s about preparation, understanding the audience, the rules, and the “central themes” of the dispute. Giving testimony is not a conversation, it has its own language and its own rhythm. Question, listen, pause, answer only what is asked, stop. Guessing, interrupting, and volunteering are wrong and dangerous in the narrow and artificial world of testimony, where every word is taken down, under oath, and scrutinized.

In this world, the questioner (lawyer) appears to be in control. That’s a lie, but even the
most experienced expert witness can fall victim to it. The expert witness has the right and the responsibility to take control. When it comes to meetings or other interactions, most people know that the way to take control of the situation is not by shouting the loudest, but by using clearly established techniques and rules. Being an expert witness is just a different kind of meeting, a way of communicating, and there are rules to be effective and be in control. The purpose of this article is to give you the rules and techniques to help you and your expert witness in a construction dispute.
Rule #1 – Instruct Your Expert To Take Their Time.
The first thing an expert witness should always remember to do is slow down and control the pace of the questioning. Lawyers often come with a strategy that involves rapid fire question and answer in the hopes that the witness will make a mistake that can be used to strengthen the opposing lawyer’s case. This tactic is easily counteracted by a witness slowing things down and taking time to think through an answer before giving it.
Rule #2 – Remind Your Expert They Are Making A Record.
It is important to remember that everything said as a witness is going to be recorded.
Every answer given in a deposition or in trial will be used by each side and can either you’re your case, or it can hurt it. It is crucial that witnesses remember to think through answers and to convey them as intended. This will be very difficult to master but is vital to the process.
Rule #3 – Tell The Truth.
While this initially seems obvious, it is often much harder to do than anticipated. This is
because telling the truth in an expert environment is a very narrow concept. Answers given in this setting should be restricted to only what the witness saw, heard or did.
Rule #4 – Be Polite.
The lawyer sitting across the table will frequently try to attack the credibility of a witness.
In order to do this, the lawyer may personally attack the witness. If a witness becomes hostile or defensive it is unlikely they will be thinking clearly and can say things that may be misconstrued. Stay focused and be polite. This will allow the witness to continue to control the pace and flow of the questioning to say what they intend to.
Rule #5 – Responding To Vague Questions.
It is imperative that a witness not respond to any questions they do not understand.
Don’t be afraid to speak up an say “I don’t understand your question.” If a question is vague or unclear, they must simply ask the lawyer to restate it or rephrase it. It is more important to take a little more time and truly understand the intent of the question, than guess or speculate when answering.
Rule #6 – If The Witness Does Not Remember.
Situations will arise for a witness where an attorney will ask a question the answer to
which the witness has no recall. Litigation often carries on for years and it can be difficult to recall certain details if questions are directed later on in the process. If a witness is presented with a question they do not remember, it is important to say “I don’t recall” and stop. Remember this is not a test; they are not being graded on how much they remember.
Rule #7 – Do Not Guess.
While in daily life it is appropriate to guess or infer particular things into a conversation, it is extremely dangerous to do this as a witness. A witness is only expected to answer to the best of their ability as to what was seen, heard or done. A witness should not take it upon them self to try and answer questions if they do not know the answer.
Rule #8 – Do Not Volunteer.
The rhythm of a witness should ultimately be “question, listen, pause, answer, stop.” The lawyer may ask broad questions in the hopes of discovering new information but it is critical the witness stick strictly to the question they are presented with.
Rule #9 – Be Careful With Documents.
Oftentimes lawyers will use documents to supplement their arguments or to ask specific
questions. It is important that the witness treat these documents mechanically and keep in mind documents are just written versions of what someone believed. There is a simple, unvarying protocol witnesses should follow when asked a question relating to a document: (a) ask to see the document. Don’t allow anyone to draw your expert witness into a debate with a document without the document being in front of you. (b) It is important the witness read it. The three issues that will pertain to any document are credibility, language and context. (c) The witness must ask for the question again. It is basic fairness, once the lawyer has read the document and picked a small piece to talk about, the witness be awarded the same time to review the document and answer.
Rule #10 – Use Your Lawyer.
A witness’s strongest ally will be his or her lawyer. You – as the lawyer – is there to object to any questions the witness shouldn’t be answering and are also aware of what the goals in the litigation process are. It is important the witness utilize their lawyer and ask questions if they are unsure of anything throughout the process. While the lawyer cannot answer the questions for the witness, you are there for support and will be the best tool to get the desired results.
Remember, these rules will not come easily. Being a good expert witness involves acting and speaking contrary to what is typical in the everyday world. The rules conflict with what your expert is used to and are often counter-intuitive. But, if they are practiced they can impose a degree of discipline and control on the legal process that makes it significantly more fair and productive. I hope that when you find yourself using an expert witness in a construction dispute these simple rules will help your case.
Kent B. Scott is a shareholder at the Salt Lake City based construction law firm of
Babcock Scott & Babcock, PC. Licensed in Utah, and all levels of Federal Court, including the U.S. Supreme Court, his practice focuses exclusively on the construction industry. He can be reached at kent or (801) 531-7000.

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