Your Day in Court: Becoming an Expert Witness

Article excerpt

An apartment manager is held hostage by an estranged lover. In the course of rescuing the hostage, the police SWAT team destroys the belongings of a tenant in the adjacent apartment. Who should pay damages - the police, the property manager - or is this an Act of God?

A woman and her adult daughter are relaxing by a resort condominium pool when a huge palm tree unexpectedly collapses, killing the woman and seriously injuring her traumatized daughter. Who is to blame?

While most cases aren't this dramatic, taking sides in difficult decisions such as these is what being an expert witness is all about. Despite rhetoric about tort reform, litigation shows little sign of diminishing. As a result, lending your expertise to trial proceedings as an expert witness is an increasingly popular way to enhance your income from property management. Fees may range from $150 to $250 an hour.

But be forewarned, it isn't as easy as it looks on "Court TV." After serving as an expert witness for many trials, I encourage you to offer your services only if you are fully prepared to lock horns with the opposition's lawyers and even with your property management peers. Being an expert witness is not for the faint of heart.

Who Is an "Expert"?

What qualifies you as an expert witness? In looking for an expert witness, attorneys will consider your education and experience, your licenses and certifications, the articles you have written, the courses or seminars you have presented, and the opinions of your peers. A specialization in a particular area, such as lease negotiations, or in specialized property types, such as resort condominiums, may make you a valuable resource to legal counsel.

As a property management "expert," you will typically be asked to evaluate and give opinions on standards of care and the custom and practice expected of professionals in the management industry. Types of cases in which you would often be involved include:

* personal injury,

* property damage,

* negligence in management,

* improper maintenance,

* lease evaluation,

* bankruptcies,

* employment negligence, and

* valuation.

When you are retained by counsel, be sure you clearly establish your designated area of expertise and the scope of your assignment. Once you have learned the circumstances of a case, feel free to turn it down if it does not seem "right" to you. This saves potential embarrassment down the line.

In my experience, it has proven very helpful to offer expert testimony for both plaintiffs and defendants. In this way, you do not come off as a "hired gun" or leave yourself open to charges of bias.

Preparing to Testify

As an expert witness, you will be called on to offer your professional opinions and to be prepared to back them up in court. Before taking the stand, it is vital that you adequately prepare for the job ahead.

* Obtain all pertinent information regarding the case (names of plaintiff and defendant, date and location of incident, name and firm of opposing counsel). Be sure that there are no conflicts of interest between your property management contracts and the case.

* Work with the attorney to thoroughly understand the issues of the case and the role your expertise will play.

* Evaluate the issues in light of professional standards of care and custom and practice criteria. For example, were the policies and procedures of the management company within the standards of care in identifying and correcting hazardous conditions?

* Verify your opinions with other experts and with available written sources. If you ask the opinions of others, be prepared to give their names and credentials.

* Review any opinions given by you or other experts in similar cases. This is particularly important if your opinion will differ significantly from past opinions. You must be prepared to explain why the current case is different. …