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When Can a Psychiatrist Serve as an Expert Witness in a Case?

Beautiful Psychologist Posing for Photography

Expert witnesses are a regular and integral part of both criminal and civil litigation. Statistics indicate that litigants rely on expert testimony in over half of all criminal cases and much as 80% of all civil trials. Psychiatric experts, in particular, may be called to testify about matters including whether a party has the mental capacity to stand trial, whether a patient has suffered a psychological or emotional injury, or whether a criminal defendant possessed requisite mental faculties to establish criminal intent. In order to rely on an expert’s opinion, a litigant must demonstrate both that the expert is qualified and that their opinion is sufficiently supported by scientific methodology. Below, the professionals at Orbit Health give a brief overview of how a court decides on the admissibility of an expert opinion.

Purpose of an Expert Witness

A typical fact witness testifies about particular facts based on what they personally observed–anything they saw, heard, smelled, etc. An expert witness, on the other hand, testifies to matters of scientific or technical opinion. An expert will likely have no direct connection to the matter. A psychiatric expert may be called in to explain concepts to the factfinder, to explain the significance of certain types of evidence, or to evaluate and draw conclusions about a particular person, such as the defendant in a criminal trial.

Expert Qualifications

In order to testify based on their opinion, an expert must be appropriately qualified. It is not sufficient that a witness has a degree in a general field, such as medicine, or even that they are a practitioner. To qualify as an expert, they must have an entire resume of education, training, and experience sufficient to demonstrate that they have deep knowledge and understanding of the issues pertinent to the matter at hand.

An expert’s qualifications will be based on, among other things:

  • Formal education, including undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, and fellowships
  • Professional training, both on the job and specialized courses in the field
  • Years of experience in the field, especially with the specific issue at bar
  • The witness’s professional publications, especially in peer-reviewed journals, pertaining to the scientific or technical field at issue
  • Experience as an expert in other matters

The more specific the witness’s expertise, the better. A psychiatrist with publications concerning delusional behavior and who has performed numerous evaluations of criminal defendants’ mental fitness will be a more qualified expert than just any psychiatric practitioner. Even after satisfying the threshold of admissibility, the more qualified the expert is, the more persuasive their opinion will be to a judge or jury. Many cases turn on the judge or jury weighing the relative merits of the conclusions offered by competing experts.

Admissibility of an Opinion

In addition to proving the expert’s qualifications, the party seeking to admit the expert must demonstrate that their specific testimony is admissible. Parties typically must submit an expert report that lays out the foundations of the expert’s opinion as well as the basis for that opinion, to preview the testimony the witness will provide at trial.

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 states that a party must establish the following in order to admit an expert’s opinion:

  • The testimony must be based on sufficient facts or data
  • The testimony must be the product of reliable principles and methods
  • The expert must have reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case

If a psychiatrist is admitted to rule on a party’s fitness to stand trial, for example, then their opinion would be based on a number of elements including the party’s medical records, prior diagnoses and treatments, interviews with and evaluations of the witness, official criteria for mental capacity based on medical journals and the understanding of the scientific community, and other factors.

If you are a litigant or healthcare provider who would benefit from a variety of qualified, effective, and professional psychiatric care specialists, reach out to Orbit Health to discuss your options for telepsychiatry today.

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