The Dog That Didn’t Bark – Adverse Inferences for Expert Witnesses

The New Jersey Supreme Court is known for bloated writing, which in the past has gotten the Court in trouble.  Witness the fiasco of the Court’s volubly outrunning its headlights to redefine strict liability to exclude the requirement of a reasonable knowability component in product liability failure-to-warn litigation. Beshada v. Johns-Manville Prods. Corp., 90 N.J. 191, 447 A.2d 539 (1982). Realizing its error, the Court attempted to correct itself a short two years later, but probably only managed to make things worse, in Feldman v. Lederle Labs., 97 N.J. 429, 479 A.2d 374 (1984). Arguably, the prestige of the New Jersey Supreme Court never recovered. See Andrew T. Berry, “Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corporation: Revolution-or-Aberration in Products Liability,” 52 Fordham L. Rev. 786 (1984); J. Berman, “Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corp.: the function of state of the art evidence in strict products liability,” 10 Am. J. Law & Med. 93 (1984).

Bitten by the Dog That Didn’t Bark

There is a danger is saying too much, and, of course, in not saying the right thing. The New Jersey high Court recently addressed adverse inferences for expert witnesses not called at trial. Washington v. Perez, ___ N.J. ___ (2014). See Bruce D. Greenberg, “Failure to Call an Expert Witness to Testify,” (Sept. 12, 2014). The case was a relative simple vehicular injury case. The defense served two expert witness reports, but did not call either expert witness at trial. In his closing argument, the plaintiff’s lawyer focused on the defense’s uncalled expert witnesses, and went so far as to suggest that defense counsel had lied to the jury. On plaintiff’s request, the court issued an adverse inference charge, instructing the jury that if it reasonably thought defendants should have called Drs. Sharetts and Hayken, then it could infer from the defendants’ not having presented these witnesses, that the missing testimony would have been adverse to defendants’ position at trial. The jury awarded plaintiff substantial damages.

The trial court refused a motion for new trial, but the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial. Washington v. Perez, 430 N.J. Super. 121, 131 (App. Div. 2013) (holding that trial court had abused its discretion in giving the adverse inference charge). See David R. Kott & Edward J. Fanning Jr., “Adverse Inference for Failing To Call a Witness: What rules apply when a person with material knowledge of a case does not testify?” 212 N.J. Law Journal 783 (June 17, 2013) (reporting on the Appellate Division’s decision). Perhaps not knowing when to stop, plaintiff obtained review in the New Jersey Supreme Court, which then endorsed the Appellate Division’s decision, and held that the giving of the adverse inference charge was error.

As the Appellate Division explained, the kerfuffle started when the plaintiff’s counsel presented a videotaped deposition of plaintiff’s expert witness, Dr. Rosen. In the course of the deposition, Dr. Rosen testified:

“Q. And in both of those reports did Dr. Ha[y]ken indicate what traumatic event or what event he associated the herniated disc that we’ve spoken of and the radiculopathy that we’ve spoken of?

A. Dr. Ha[y]ken states in his report that he feels that the cervical herniated disc and radiculopathy are related to the accident of 12/20/06.”

The defense asked that this Q&A be redacted, and plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Dr. Hayken never so stated in his report. Judge Charles Little, sitting in Burlington County, however, took a “let it all in” approach, despite defense counsel’s statement that he did not plan upon calling Dr. Hayken, and so the elicited testimony would not have been appropriate rebuttal.

The trial judge’s error only compounded. During voir dire of the jury panel, defense counsel had identified his two expert witnesses, and in his opening statement, the defense counsel has told the jury that “the evidence will show that [plaintiff] was not injured in the accident … .” Plaintiff’s counsel ran with the admittedly false testimony of Dr. Rosen, pilloried defense counsel for not calling Dr. Hayken, and argued that Dr. Hayken would have supported the plaintiff’s case.

Despite the Appellate Division’s sure-footed handling of the case, the Supreme Court granted certification, and affirmed in a slip opinion over 40 pages long. Although it took a lot of words, at least in this instance the Court got to the decision right:

“an adverse inference charge should rarely be invoked to address the absence of an expert.”

Slip op. at 3.

Defense counsel had served reports of Drs. Sharetts and Hayken, on plaintiff’s counsel, with a disclaimer that the reports were not defendants’ adoptive admissions. Id. at 6. When objecting to Dr. Rosen’s testimony, defense counsel explained that he did not intend to call his expert witnesses, because plaintiff had failed to prove her case. Id. at 10. Later, however, he claimed that Dr. Hayken was unavailable. Id. at 12.

In any event, Rosen’s dodgy testimony, and the trial court’s equally dodgy awarding of an adverse inference charge, set defense counsel up for a pasting before the jury. After the summations, the trial court let on that it was unhappy with plaintiff’s closing argument that the defense had tried to hide evidence, and that it “should probably grant a new trial,” but the trial court incongruously and circularly denied the new trial because the defense did not present any expert witnesses. Id.

A large part of the bloat in the high court’s opinion is the Court’s exploration of missing witness instructions in civil and criminal cases, for fact and expert witnesses. Id. at 13-28. Given that the Court ultimately held that expert witnesses are different, it might have spared the reader a recitation of the law for fact witnesses. Two thirds into its opinion, the Court finally gets to expert witnesses, but attempts to resolve the conflicting case law and the claims in the case sub judice within the confines of its precedent in State v. Hill, 199 N.J. 545, 974 A.2d 403 (2009). Hill articulated a standard for the propriety of an adverse inference jury instruction in the face of a party’s failure or refusal to call a fact witness.

As the Supreme Court explains, and what we all know, expert witnesses are different. Slip op. at 30. Expert witnesses must be disclosed, and they are subject to heightened discovery in the form of interrogatories and depositions. Second, expert witnesses rarely are in exclusive possession of facts essential to the other side’s case. Id. at 31, 39. Somewhat puzzlingly, the Court offered that parties are not under any obligation to call an expert witnesses, unless their opinions are needed to satisfy an element of the claim or defense. Id. at 32. The same, however, could be said of fact witnesses.

Finally, and most importantly, Court acknowledged that there are “many strategic and practical reasons that may prompt a party who has retained an expert witness to decide not to present the expert’s testimony at trial.” Id. at 33. Expert witnesses are expensive; they are sometimes duplicative; and sometimes they are unavailable. Id. at 35.

According to the Supreme Court, expert witnesses are not generally under a party’s exclusive control, and there is no privilege in a testifying expert witness’s opinion. Id at 36-37. The Court thus suggested that expert witnesses are “available” to the party seeking the adverse inference. Id. at 37.

As with adverse inferences, the most interesting aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision in Washington v. Perez is what the Court did not say. The Court omitted a necessary discussion of how expert witness testimony is presented to a jury or a court, who may, as the finder of fact, accept some, all, or none of the opinion testimony. The party without the burden of proof is free to argue that the adversary’s expert witness was incredible, or that the witness conceded the most important points for the trial, and that calling yet another expert witness in opposition would have wasted the factfinder’s time, and the client’s money.

The availability argument raises the ethical concern of legal counsel attempting ex parte agreements with adversaries’ expert witnesses. And then there is the simple solution that plaintiff’s counsel did not need to elicit imaginary or phony concessions from Dr. Rosen about Dr. Hayken’s report; counsel could have taken Dr. Hayken’s deposition before trial, or during a short recess.

Perhaps even simpler yet, the Court could have (and should have) condemned the admission of Dr. Rosen’s concededly false testimony about what Dr. Hayken’s report stated. The exclusion of this testimony would taken away much of the rationale for plaintiff’s request for the adverse inference instruction.

One way to avoid the request for adverse inference instructions is to announce, say the day before resting, that you have decided not to call an expert witness and that you have released that witness to testify for anyone calling him. This announcement should place the onus on your adversary to ask for time to ask for, or compel, the attendance of the witness. This procedure also preserves the integrity of the process by making clear that your adversary is not free to contact your expert witness until you give permission.

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