Can an Expert Witness Opine on Someone’s State of Mind?
Expert witnesses are absolutely crucial to most trials. They provide valuable insight that can sway jurors, strengthen your arguments, and ultimately, win cases.
However, because these witnesses are so useful, and they aren’t actually involved in the events being disputed in court, they have some fairly complex rules that must be followed.
One of the major rules that you need to consider before hiring an expert witness, and before building an argument around their participation in court, is whether or not they can provide an opinion on a person’s state of mind.
We’re going to go in-depth to explain what an expert witness is, can an expert witness opine on someone’s state of mind, how exactly a state of mind affects the outcome of a trial, and how the two interact in a court case.
Let’s get started.
What is an Expert Witness?
In a trial, you have two main types of witnesses, and each of them has sub-types that are slightly different. The two main witness types are factual witnesses and expert witnesses.
Factual witnesses are what the layperson is likely most familiar with. These are people who were around when the events on trial occurred, they overheard something relevant to the case, or maybe they had conversations or connections to one of the parties that allow them to provide key information in the case for either side. These can be people from all walks of life, and they don’t need to have experience with trials or specific aspects of the case to be called to court. They just have to be relevant to the case.
For example, let’s say you were walking down the street when a murder occurred. You weren’t the person harmed, and you weren’t the person committing the crime. You also didn’t see the event take place. However, you did hear gunshots, and shortly after, you saw the defendant running from a nearby alley onto the street you were walking down. You could be called to court and asked to testify what you heard and saw. That would make you a factual witness.
Expert witnesses are very different. These aren’t people who were connected to the events in question. Instead, they are professionals in specific fields with years of experience, and a case happens to revolve heavily around something pertaining to their field. While they don’t have any hands-on information about the case, a legal team can hire expert witnesses such as medical expert witnesses or business litigation expert witness, to explain the case to them, and then get their expert opinions entered into the court’s records.
For example, let’s say you are a doctor with twenty years of experience helping people who were harmed in car accidents. You understand how long the healing process is, what procedures are standard for certain injuries, how patients are affected in their personal lives, etc. The legal team of someone suing a company because their employee drove a company vehicle into them, causing substantial injuries, has reached out to you and asked if you would consider being interviewed to be an expert witness. You show up, they interview you, tell you what has happened, the injuries incurred, and general information about their condition, and you tell them how you feel about it. If they like your answers and think you support their argument, they can hire you. At which point, you would give a deposition, and then testify later on during the trial, giving your point of view of the case based solely on your experience.
That’s a key thing to remember, too. Expert witnesses must testify based on their experience and the facts as they understand them. They cannot utilize biased opinions, information from outside the case, and other bits that don’t come from personal professional experience and facts recorded by the court. In essence, they are neutral parties that may or may not support their team’s case when it all comes down to it.
That is why hiring the right expert witness is crucial. Since they’re neutral, their experience might not shed a positive light on your team’s argument, and that can hurt your case. It’s important to vet expert witnesses beforehand to ensure that the experience they have aligns well with your team’s argument.
What is a State of Mind in Relevance to a Court Case?
Everyone knows what someone’s state of mind is. It’s just how the person is functioning mentally and emotionally at a specific period. For instance, when someone just gets out of a traumatic situation, their state of mind might be distraught. If they’re in a life-or-death situation, their state of mind might be frantic, or they might get completely out of control as their instincts kick in.
How does that relate to a court case, though? If someone commits a crime or does something rash while escaping or preventing one, that’s just how it is, right?
Well, state of mind actually has a lot of bearing on how a case can play out.
Let’s say something very traumatic happens. An active shooter is in the area, and there are already a few casualties. A person nearby goes into survival mode and manages to overcome that active shooter. They dispatch the shooter, but then they go a bit too far. Maybe they keep exerting force after the individual is incapacitated, or they start doing odd things. Whatever it is, they are now on trial for breaking self-defense laws.
Obviously, that is a traumatic experience, and the person’s state of mind can be taken into consideration when determining whether or not their actions deserve punishment, and to what extent that punishment should be if there is one.
There can also be more tame situations such as someone getting into a fight and being charged with attacking someone and causing minor injuries. Maybe the person had harmed one of their family members and launched them into a rage such as what you see in some courtrooms occasionally, or maybe the person has a mental illness and didn’t have the best control over their actions. Their state of mind might be taken into account to provide a more lenient sentence, or the sentence might be changed from jail time to some sort of recovery program.
So, state of mind definitely has an impact on many types of cases. However, how the state of mind is presented and argued in court is heavily regulated. The courtroom can’t have 500 witnesses take the stand to make random assumptions about something as intangible as one’s state of mind, and certain types of witnesses might be forced to refrain from opining on such matters to remain neutral.
It is imperative that legal teams understand the limitations present when presenting their client’s state of mind as an argument in court.
Can an Expert Witness Comment on Someone’s State of Mind During a Trial or Deposition?
An expert witness cannot opine on someone’s state of mind in court, but the reason why is a bit more complicated than simply not allowing them to present opinions on mindsets.
In court, an expert witness isn’t brought in to provide personal opinions. They’re brought in to present facts related to their field of expertise that is pertinent to the case.
For example, let’s say you’re an expert witness with 20 years of experience in the ER. You have treated countless patients who have suffered injuries in serious car accidents, and you’re being called upon to present information related to how a plaintiff’s injuries have affected their life.
The plaintiff says that he was unable to work due to the pain of his injuries and that the numerous corrective surgeries have left him emotionally and mentally scarred.
You would not be able to take the stand and say that the plaintiff’s injuries caused PTSD, or that they prevent him from doing any sort of work. You also could not conclude that the defendant is responsible for the injuries, or that they caused great mental suffering.
Instead, you would present factual evidence from your experience as a medical professional.
For example, you might say that, in your experience, the injuries the plaintiff suffered take six to nine months to properly heal from, and you might say that patients are recommended not to participate in strenuous activity for the duration of the healing process to prevent further damage. That would support the plaintiff’s argument, but it would not directly draw a conclusion to the case, and it would not be an opinion on the plaintiff’s mental state or how they were affected beyond the facts.
For another example, let’s say you’re a psychiatrist, someone whose job deals directly with mindsets. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an expert witness. In this pretend case, you’re hired by the defendant’s legal team. The defendant is accused of stealing company funds to go on extravagant shopping sprees. The defendant has medical records showing a bipolar diagnosis, and the attorney is arguing that the bipolar caused the events to occur.
You cannot say “The defendant’s bipolar triggered impulsive spending habits and caused the spending spree to occur.” However, you could say, without providing an opinion on the defendant’s mental state, the following. “In my experience, bipolar can cause some patients to demonstrate impulsive spending habits, and the preferred method of treatment is medication and therapy.” That is a recollection of your experience as a psychiatrist, and it does discuss the effect bipolar has on someone’s state of mind, but you’re not opining on the defendant’s state of mind. You’re simply stating a well-supported medical fact that has been entered into the court and presented as an argument.
In general, any testimony provided by an expert witness must be about a specific aspect of the case. From the above example, you can see that the specific aspect was bipolar and whether or not it causes spending impulses. However, it cannot be an opinion that draws a conclusion about the case, defines the party’s mindset specifically, or otherwise aims to provide a biased look into the mindset of the person being discussed.
Also, while not directly entangled with one’s mindset, expert witnesses cannot produce facts about the law itself while avoiding opining about someone’s mindset; which is a common mistake when discussing certain crimes. Descriptions of the law are to be left solely to the judge, and conclusions based on the law or even the expert witness’s experience are to be left for the jury to deliberate and for the judge to present.
After all, expert witnesses are neutral parties.
When hiring an expert witness, it’s important to keep this in mind. Especially when the case is based, partially or in full, on the client’s state of mind.
If an expert witness says things in a manner deemed inappropriate by court standards, the opposing team can object, and it will likely be sustained. Repeated incidents might cause the expert witness’s highly-supportive testimony to be thrown out entirely.
This is why it’s often important to find an experienced non-testifying expert witness who can help vet potential testifying expert witnesses to ensure what they’re saying aligns with your goals, and that they make suitable candidates for a trial in the first place.
Hiring an Expert Witness Who Abides by These Rules
We touched on this in the section above, but it is very important to hire an expert witness who abides by these basic rules. Failing to do so can be catastrophic for one’s case, whether that case is a serious national headline or a very minor infraction with minimal impact on the parties involved.
Because of this, your hiring process needs to be rather complex and purposeful.
You can properly hire an expert witness by:
- Hiring a non-testifying expert witness to confirm the quality of potential options.
- Interview the expert witness in a manner that highlights whether or not their experience suits your argument.
- Requesting background information regarding their education, affiliations, accomplishments, and other credibility-based information.
Of course, the best way is to contact Litigation Legal Insight. We specialize in finding expert witnesses that suit your needs and can help you win cases.