Claims between policyholders and their insurance companies can seem simple. I often hear, “My roof didn’t leak prior to the storm and now it does. How can the insurance company say it wasn’t a result of the storm?” Generally, when this is the case, the insurance company has hired an expert to opine about what actually caused the leak. More often than not, that expert, who is being paid by the insurance company not only on this case but on many others, determines that the leak was caused by wear and tear instead of the storm. Interesting, but how do we know that the expert is qualified to render such an opinion?
Under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, specific and relevant knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education is required to qualify an expert witness. There are no degree or certification requirements and no years of service or publication requirements. Courts have allowed experts with no formal education but years of experience and “academics with no practical experience” to offer opinions. (See Eagle Pet Serv. Co. v. Pacific Employers Ins. Co., 175 A.D. 2d 471, 572 N.Y.S. 2d 625 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept., 1991); Lavespere v. Niagara Mach. & Tool Works, 910 F.2d 167 (5th Cir. 1990)). Sometimes the qualifications of an expert will be called into question, and other times the dispute will be over the reliability of the expert’s principles and methods.
The test used to determine an expert’s reliability in federal court is known as the Daubert test. This test includes:
A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
However, this list is non-exhaustive, and judges have great leeway in determining whether a person is qualified to give expert testimony. An expert who has 14 advanced degrees in general automotives might be just as qualified as an person who dropped out of high school but has worked 25 years as a general auto-mechanic.
Keep in mind that the Daubert test is not used in all state jurisdictions. Academics matter, but so does experience.