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What's a Non-Expert's Opinion Worth in a Personal Injury Case?

Clearly, you don't have to be an expert to testify court. Witnesses of all sorts testify to various things. They are commonly broken into two groups: lay witnesses and expert witnesses.

There is no rule that requires that a witness being expert. A lay witness may, in fact, need to testify to a certain degree of opinion from time to time. On occasion, some small degree of intrinsic opinion is permissible of the lay, non-expert, witness in order to effectively answer questions. This is even the case, on occasion, when there's a lack of training or expertise on the topic of testimony.

Whether a non-expert is competent to give his or her opinion largely depends on the witness's ability to produce or describe the subject matter to the jury. It must be of the nature of facts that people in general have the ability to comprehend and understand, without the need for expert testimony.

The most common examples of things to which people may ordinarily testify without being experts are the identity of persons and things; likeness; sound; distance; weight; age; speed; color; size; and measurement of time or space. So long as the lay witness has testified to something about which the general public ordinarily would form an opinion, such testimony is likely admissible.

A potential example of such testimony in an auto accident litigation would be the speed at which a vehicle was traveling prior to being involved in a car accident. (Let's put aside the issue of whether a personal injury lawyer would rely upon a lay witness to testify as to the speed of the vehicle involved in a car accident. Were we litigating a case, we'd likely have an expert who has reconstructed the accident. But that is not to say that a layperson cannot testify as to his or her opinion of speed, so long as the attorney knows the testimony was consistent with that of the expert.)

Let's say that during the accident, a car came driving down a steep decline towards a busy intersection. About 100 yards prior to the intersection, the light for the driver of that vehicle turned yellow. At about 50 yards, the light turned red. At about 25 yards, the driver of that vehicle slammed on his brakes and streaked into the middle of the intersection, striking another car at a perpendicular angle. An individual operating a hot dog stand on one corner of the intersection testified that he had watched the vehicle approach from about 200 yards out. He testified that he had no customers being served at the time, and he noticed a vehicle due to its high rate of speed. The plaintiff's lawyer then asked the witness's opinion as to how fast the vehicle was traveling when it was approaching the intersection.

Defense counsel objected, and the judge calls both attorneys up to the bench for sidebar. "What is your objection, counsel?" asked the judge.

Defense counsel said," Your Honor, plaintiff's counsel is asking a question of a lay witness which seeks and expert opinion as to speed and distance."

"Plaintiff's counsel, what do you say to that?" said the judge.

"Your Honor, it is widely held that non-experts may testify as to their opinions of distance and speed."

The judge then overruled defense counsel's objection and directs the witness to answer the question asked. Later in the trial, the plaintiff's expert accident reconstruction witness testifies to the exact speed and distance concluded in the expert's research and analysis. Such testimony is clearly more valuable, not only to the plaintiff and his attorney, but also to the jury in ascertaining the true facts of the case. But, lay witness testimony, particularly for issues like this, is not only valuable, but very relatable to jurors so that they may ascertain such information.

Categories: Personal Injury, evidence

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