Most witnesses are fact witnesses; they have personal knowledge of either the
incident that underlies the lawsuit or the persons involved. Anyone may testify
as to facts; only an expert may present opinions. Fact witnesses are usually
laypersons who have little experience in the courtroom. Cross-examination is
more effective with these witnesses than with experienced expert witnesses.
An expert, such as a physician, may be called as a fact witness in areas that are
outside his or her expertise. For example, a physician may have witnessed an
automobile accident. A physician may be a fact witness when a case involves a
person whom the physician has treated. The physician may be asked to testify
as to the fact of the patient’s injury, the treatment rendered, the cost of the
treatment, and the current condition of the patient. These are matters of fact
contained in the patient’s medical record. Questions about the patient’s
prognosis, however, require an expert opinion. It is this requirement of special
qualifications to render opinions that separates fact from expert testimony.
The most important fact witnesses in civil cases are the parties themselves.
The jurors’ sympathy for the plaintiff versus the defendant is an important
determinant of their ultimate verdict. Plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases
must convince the jury that they have been injured and that they are
deserving of compensation. Defendants must convince the jury that they
deserve to be vindicated, both because they did nothing wrong and because
they are good people. In criminal trials the dynamic is different. The
defendant’s right against self-incrimination means that the defendant may
refuse to testify, and frequently does. The victim, if living, may testify, but in
many cases the victim is dead or unavailable. In fraud cases, especially
reimbursement fraud, the only victim may be a corporation or the government.