The Role of Court-Appointed Experts in Complex Litigation

In order to aid the court, a judge might occasionally appoint an expert to help with specific aspects of the case. Court-appointed experts are different from a specific party’s experts because the court-appointed experts do not favor one side or the other, but rather, help the judge with certain tasks or analyses.

A trial court-appointed expert can be especially useful in a class action lawsuit in which several people have a claim against the defendant and there is no way that the court can hear each individual person’s case. In that instance, a court-appointed expert can help properly group the members of the class action lawsuit and help bring order to an otherwise unwieldy case.

In a recent case from Orleans Parish, the appellate court had to determine when a court-appointed expert is proper and what the limits of such an expert’s duties should be. Before getting into the applicable Louisiana law and how the appellate court ultimately ruled, some knowledge of the background facts is useful: The case from Orleans Parish was a class action lawsuit in which several employees were suing over medical problems they experienced from working in a building that had serious mold damage. Over 600 individuals had claims in the suit, and in order to deal with the case in a more organized and manageable manner, the class was to be broken up into various groups. In order to help with this enormous task, the trial court stated that it wanted to appoint an expert to help group individuals according to damages. Each party was allowed to submit nominations and discuss any issues they felt might arise if such an expert was appointed. Ultimately, an expert was appointed to help with the necessary tasks, and after the case was decided at the trial court level, the State argued that the court-appointed expert had outstepped his appropriate boundaries.

Overall, the State argued that the expert had overextended his appropriate duties in several ways and that the court had improperly relied too heavily on the expert. Specifically, they claimed three main “errors” of the court with regard to the court-appointed expert. The State argued that the trial court was improper in allowing the expert to offer opinion testimony and that his report should not have been admitted to evidence; it argued that the awards of damages to the plaintiffs were improper and that they relied on the expert’s misinterpretation of the law; and it argued that the test employed by the expert to decide how to award damages was improper. So the question before the appellate court is whether or not the expert was appropriately appointed and whether or not the tasks he completed were within his jurisdiction.

In Louisiana law, La. Code Evid. art. 706 deals explicitly with the limitations of experts in the court setting. While the State argued that the expert was utilized improperly, the appellate court found that according to article 706, it was well within the trial court’s discretion to appoint the expert and that it was proper for the expert to group claims for the class action and make recommendations.

In addition to finding that the expert acted appropriately in his role, the appellate court further found that the judge had issued proper instructions to the expert as well. Specifically, the judge at the trial court level told the expert that he was not to engage in any judicial functions or be a trier of fact.

And most importantly, the judge did not just issue proper instructions and warnings to the expert, but the expert also did not try to improperly extend his employment to cover any of those functions. The expert limited his role to creating a method for breaking up the class into specific groups, submitting an expert report detailing his findings and opinions, and properly coming up with awards of damages for the plaintiffs as he was instructed to do. None of these jobs involved the expert taking over any judicial functions or necessitated him being a trier of fact. Because of this, the appointment of the expert witness and the tasks he completed were appropriate.

If you are part of a class action lawsuit and need help resolving your dispute, contact Berniard Law Firm at (504) 527-6225 to talk to an attorney who will gladly help you.