Biased Expert Testimony in Virginia Personal Injury Claims

In some Virginia personal injury lawsuits, testimony from experts may be necessary to lend further credibility to the argument that a party is making, but also to provide more context to the facts of a particular case. Sometimes, however, experts are retained repeatedly and may have previous, longstanding relationships with insurance companies or attorneys. The potential for bias for these experts can be high because of these relationships, and evidence of that bias may be crucial for a party to establish when arguing against or working to discredit the expert’s testimony.

In a recent Virginia Supreme Court opinion, the court considered whether evidence of an expert’s previous relationship with an insurance company and potential bias could be introduced in court. The plaintiff was driving when she was hit from behind by the defendant. Following the accident, the plaintiff experienced back, hip, and neck pain and increased depression and anxiety. The plaintiff sought medical care and physical therapy that cost more than $26,000 and sued the defendant seeking $150,000 in damages. The defendant’s representation retained an orthopedic surgeon to serve as a witness, who opined that the car accident only caused minor injuries to the plaintiff and that much of the pain she experienced was the result of conditions that were present before the accident. He also argued that her medical expenses should only be around $3000.

During depositions prior to trial, it was discovered that the surgeon had been retained by the defendant’s attorney more than 30 times over the last decade, but not by the defendant’s insurance company directly. However, the surgeon had done work with the insurance company before this case through the defendant’s attorney and had been compensated by the insurance company for his expert testimony. Before trial, the plaintiff moved to introduce evidence showing the surgeon’s previous relationship with the defendant’s attorney and her auto insurance company. The court allowed the plaintiff to introduce evidence that the surgeon had testified on behalf of the defendant’s attorney’s clients in the past but barred her from discussing his previous work for the defendant’s insurance company because there was no direct relationship between the surgeon and the company.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the lower court erred when it barred her from introducing evidence of the surgeon’s relationship with the insurance company. She argued that the lower court incorrectly required a “direct relationship” between the surgeon and the insurance company. The appellate court sided with the plaintiff and held that the lower court analyzed the dispute incorrectly. The plaintiff should have been allowed to introduce evidence of the surgeon’s relationship with the defendant’s insurance company without a direct relationship.

In Virginia, a direct relationship between the expert and the insurer is not necessary to establish that the potential for bias may be present because of the expert’s interest in the case. Under Virginia law, only a “substantial relationship” is necessary between an insurer and expert for evidence to be introduced. It is not necessary that the insurer directly hire the expert to establish a “substantial relationship,” but it is one factor that a court may consider. An insurer’s payment of a significant amount of money to an expert for prior testimony, for example, can be enough to establish a “substantial relationship” on its own.

Do You Need a Virginia Personal Injury Attorney?

If you or someone you know has been recently injured or killed in a Virginia car accident, contact the Schupak Law Firm. Attorney Schupak is a passionate advocate and litigator who has represented clients in all types of personal injury claims for nearly 30 years. To schedule a free initial consultation today, contact us at 240-833-3914.

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