Can Experts Help Interpret Technical Laws?
Experts testify about areas that are highly complex, scientific, or technical in nature. The correct assumption made in the law is that neither normal people on the street (law witnesses) nor attorneys have the required background expertise to provide testimony in medical, technical, or scientific fields. That’s why we use experts.
Experts are not supposed to interpret the law. If they do, their opinion can be thrown out, or worse, whatever verdict was rendered based on their opinion can be overturned. Interpreting laws is the expertise of lawyers and courts—not technical or scientific experts.
What Experts Do
Experts only provide background and explanation on and about facts. For example, an expert would not testify on what negligence means, or the standard for medical malpractice, or whether worker’s compensation immunity applies in a case. The experts clarify the facts and the lawyers apply the expert’s opinion to the law.
But it’s often not that simple, because in many cases, the law contains terms that are highly scientific or technical. Imagine, for example:
- A law that says what chemicals can be in a medication.
- A law that details the kids of scaffolding that can be used, in order to comply with a building code or health and safety regulations
- A law that lists the types of chemicals that can legally be used to clean pool water.
- Laws that detail what kind of technical testing that airplane parts must undergo before being certified as safe
In these examples, there is a law that is supposed to be interpreted by lawyers and courts, but that law contains terms that the lawyers and courts can’t be expected to understand without an expert’s opinion.
Courts Sometimes Allow Experts to Testify About Laws
Courts have said that if a law contains terms that are of a highly scientific, or technical nature, or where special knowledge is needed, the expert can provide the necessary testimony to assist a court in understanding the law. If the law contains terms of art, or terms specific to a specialized field, an expert can be called on to assist the court.
However, if the expert goes beyond simply explaining or clarifying the technical terms, the expert is interfering with the court’s duty, and the testimony is not appropriate.
An expert can certainly apply the facts to the law. For example, an expert could investigate a pool where someone was injured or drowned, look at and analyze the facts, and then render an opinion on whether the pool complied with any applicable codes or laws having to do with pool safety. The expert can say “yes, this complies with the law” or “no it does not.”
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