Expert Testimony in Hazing Liability Cases
by, Lexicon Legal
School hazing is a rapidly developing legal area. Practitioners are faced with many novel questions of law, and this can make it difficult to adequately prepare to take a case to trial – or even determine what a fair settlement would be. With few comparable cases across the country, you might not have a single case in your jurisdiction to determine fair settlement value or predict what a jury might award at trial. It is important for litigators to work with the right experts who can help them make a persuasive case on new issues of law. Guidepoint knows how to find the experts and data that will help you build your case from the ground up.
THE TYPES OF EXPERTS WHOSE TESTIMONY WILL BE NEEDED IN A HAZING LIABILITY CASE
So what expert witnesses are needed in a school hazing liability case? The answer to this question could depend on the jurisdiction in which your case is filed. Many state legislatures have created new hazing statutes, and there could also be case law in your jurisdiction about what expert testimony is required – or how closely your expert’s credentials must match the specific facts of your case. In general, here are some of the experts you are likely to need to establish your prima facie case:
School Administration Experts
School administrators generally owe a duty of care to the students in their charge. This is why, for example, a student can often sue for injuries sustained on campus. But what duty of care is owed by a school district (and its employees) to prevent hazing?
This is one of the many unsettled questions of law that litigators face in school hazing cases. Some jurisdictions might have statutes or case law on point, but many do not. Litigators must present expert testimony about what reasonable measures should be required to protect students from hazing injuries. To do this, you will likely need to present some sort of expert on school administration. The function of such an expert is similar to a standard of care expert in a medical malpractice case. As in a medical malpractice case, it is important to use an expert who is closely matched to the circumstances of your case. For example, if your client was injured by hazing at a large urban school district, your school administration expert should have experience in this type of setting. An administrator who has only worked at a private school in a rural setting might not be qualified to testify as to reasonable measures in an urban public school.
Mental Health Experts
It is also clear that a litigator in a school hazing will have to prove both causation and damages. In some school hazing cases, the injuries are physical, and damages might be proven with a doctor who testifies about the injuries that were caused and how it affected your client. In many cases, however, the most significant damage in hazing cases is emotional. Your client might experience a psychological injury with a recognized diagnosis – such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder. In these cases, you will need a mental health expert to testify that these damages were caused by the hazing and describe the nature of your client’s injuries to the jury. This is no easy task. Most lay jurors have little to no understanding of complicated mental health disorders. It is important to find an expert who not only has experience with your client’s specific injuries but also one who can also explain these injuries to a jury in a compelling manner that allows jurors to engage with your client’s stories.
So who qualifies as a mental health expert? Psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, counselors, educational psychologists and others with similar credentials can all qualify as an expert in this area. Again, it is important to match your expert to the specific injuries your client has sustained. For example, psychiatrists are medical doctors who often treat mental illness with medication. If your client is not on any medication but is instead working with a therapist to overcome an eating disorder that developed due to hazing, then a psychiatrist might not be the best choice for an expert witness. Instead, you should work with a counselor or therapist who has experience with your client’s specific eating disorder. In this case, a counselor who only has experience with trauma or PTSD will not be as relevant as one who is experienced in eating disorders.
In addition to the duty of care, causation, and damages, you will also have to prove the value of your client’s damages to a jury. Valuation of damages becomes incredibly difficult in cases involving emotional injuries. Medical treatment or therapy bills can be easily tabulated, but the non-economic damages (such as pain and suffering) will be far more difficult to assign a quantitative value. This presents a problem, as damages for pain and suffering are often the largest component of personal injury awards, and failure to develop this element properly to prove its value can result in less-than-adequate settlement or award.
In some cases, you must simply let a mental health expert describe your client’s pain and suffering, then hope that a jury can translate that to a fair award of compensation. But in many cases, you can present an economist as an expert witness to help quantify the value of your client’s losses with slightly more precision. An economist can project the costs of future medical expenses, lost wages, and other tangible losses. In the horrific event that your hazing case involves a wrongful death claim, an economist can also help present information about the victim’s life expectancy and projected earning capacity.
LET GUIDEPOINT CONNECT YOU WITH EXPERTS WHO CAN HELP BUILD YOUR CASE
School hazing cases are a new, developing area of the law. Many of the legal issues presented by these cases are still not settled. Even where there is binding precedent, it is likely not a settled issue of law in your jurisdiction, so it is important to be prepared with solid evidence that will allow you to establish precedent. Guidepoint can connect you with the experts, data, and research that will help you win your case. Contact us today to learn about how our services support your novel litigation issues.
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