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Ask Dr. Harriet Burge

What's The Best Way To Approach Expert Witness Work?
By Dr. Harriet Burge, EMLab P&K's Director of Aerobiology

I recently read an article by Dr. Howard Weiner, whom I consider to have a logical approach to expert witnessing. His article is directed toward physicians, so I am paraphrasing his comments to address problems faced by mold investigators and remediators.

Before beginning I want to emphasize that no one without a medical degree should offer opinions on the health of patients. Also, no practicing physician should assume cause and effect from the limited data available on one patient (or even groups of patients). Rigorous proof of cause and effect requires a series of well planned research studies.

Now down to Dr. Weiner's comments, paraphrased.

  1. Appreciate your bias. You have often been hired to find the cause of health complaints in your client. Although you can't possibly do this, you are anxious to discover problems that could lead to health complaints.


  2. Recognize that health complaints are subjective, and may have nothing at all to do with the environment.


  3. Know your limitations. This includes recognizing that we don't understand exactly how exposure occurs, or the relationships between exposure and dose. Recognize that your statement that (for example) Stachybotrys is present in an environment will be taken as proof by the client and his/her attorney of cause and effect. Also recognize that the inclusion of boiler-plate material on all the health effects of all the fungi will cause confusion. If you have studied the literature on, for example, fungal allergies, then you can state that (again, an example) Stachybotrys as well as most other fungi can cause allergic sensitization.


  4. Do not accept historical statements as facts (about either symptoms or building conditions or relationships between the two). Client perceptions of the past may change over time.


  5. Acknowledge your level of expertise in the given matter before becoming an expert witness for your client.


  6. Be prepared! Review all of your records and have them organized for easy reference. Read the literature relating to the specific questions of concern. If you don't understand the literature, admit it to yourself and don't testify in that area.


  7. Leave your ego outside the proceeding. Attorneys will certainly try to prove that you are not qualified to testify. This is their job. If you have done your homework, you will be able to calmly reply to nasty questions, and provide intelligent, well thought out responses.

I strongly advise you to read Dr. Weiner's article if you have been or are considering doing expert witness work. The reference to his article is:

Weiner H. 2010. Forensic approach to medical causation when allergic disease is the differential diagnosis. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings, Volume 31, Number 1, January/February 2010, pp. 1-4(4).

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Indoor Environment Connections. Reprinted by permission.

Dr. Harriet Burge   About Dr. Harriet Burge
Dr. Harriet Burge is EMlab P&K's Director of Aerobiology and Chair of EMLab P&K's Scientific Advisory Board. Widely considered the leading expert in indoor air quality (IAQ), Dr. Burge pioneered the field more than 30 years ago. She has served as a member of three National Academy of Sciences committees for IAQ, including as Vice-Chair of the Committee on the Health Effects of Indoor Allergens. View Dr. Burge's Curriculum Vitae.

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