Everyday Heroes

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When St. Louis personal injury lawyer Patric Lester was preparing to try a negligence suit against a gas station, he hired an expert to testi­fy on his client’s behalf.

For a $175-$250 hour­ly rate, an engineer was prepared to explain why Lester’s client fell and broke a hip.

But Lester also hired two individuals who weren’t as accustomed to the witness stand: an architect who designs gas pump islands and a tile installer. Their opinions became pivotal to ultimately persuading the defendant to settle the case for a substantial amount, Lester says.

The $100-an-hour architect and the $40-an-hour tile installer are among the growing number of nonprofessional experts–those who don’t normally derive part of their incomes from testifying or preparing reports in connection with legal matters.

Dollars And Sense

One reason they are becoming so popular, lawyers say, is economics. Nonprofessionals typically charge a fraction of what professionals command. And some professional experts have doubled or even tripled their fees in recent years. Nonprofessional rates, meanwhile, have remained relatively stable.

But, expenses aside, these lawyers say people who actually work in a particular field tend to have more credibility and a better rapport with juries than many professional experts.

“If you had a products liability case involving a faulty piece of equipment in a factory that makes widgets,” says New York City insurance and corporate defense lawyer Steven Goldstein, “who would you rather have as an expert: a shop steward or line super­vi­sor who has worked in a widget factory his whole life? Or some engineer with a degree from MIT and a bunch of initials after his name who has never encountered on a real-life basis what actually happens on a factory room floor?”

Goldstein, who’s been using nonprofessionals as experts for more than 20 years, recently turned to a veteran fuel-oil delivery driver to help defend a homeowner whose underground storage tank leaked onto a neighbor’s property. The truck driver’s testimony, Goldstein says, “was more persuasive than a nationally known expert in metallurgy.” The case ended up settling on very favorable terms.

Lawyers who hire nonprofessionals say there are plenty of times when only a professional will do. But Goldstein prefers to use a nonprofessional who has worked in the same field as an injured plaintiff: “He knows the field, … what the pitfalls are, and he can relate well to the jury.”

Nova Southeastern University law professor Carol Henderson, an expert on picking experts, has seen no hard evidence showing lawyers are hiring more nonprofessionals. But she says she can understand why that might be the case. Going this route makes economic sense, especially in contingent fee cases when a lawyer is advancing costs or for firms that lack substantial war chests.

She supports the notion that jurors find non­professionals more credible. “Some professional experts may come across as too glib or too polished,” says Henderson, the director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law.

On the other hand, Henderson says, lawyers must un­der­stand that you often get what you pay for. “Lawyers who use nonprofessionals,” she warns, “may have to take extra time to prepare the witness for trial, and make sure he or she will qualify as an expert and has the ability to ‘teach’ the jury.”

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