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Imagine you are lead defense counsel in an airline crash case. More than 200 lives were lost and liability has been established against your client. The plaintiff in your case, a French businessman who imported leather goods, is represented by a major firm who has obtained the services of an academic economist as an expert witness. This witness says losses are over $200 million for this single individual. What should you do?

Similarly, you have been asked to represent a client whose medical practice was disrupted due to a fire which destroyed his office building. As a result, the physician had to relocate to temporary, suburban quarters about two miles away from his former location in a medium-sized community in Northern California. What do you do? Are there economic losses involved? How much and why?

Each of these are real cases. In the first situation, the case settled below $1 million. The second case is ongoing, but a preliminary report estimates economic damages at nearly $2 million. In each case, the economist's role in establishing a reasonable level of economic damages was critically important. This brief note lists frequently asked questions (FAQs) for litigators to consider in choosing and effectively using an economic expert.

Why use an economic expert?

As implied in the above two cases, a skilled economist can provide valuable advice and counsel and generally enable his or her fees to more than be offset by favorable outcomes for the client. In the airline case, fees were about $7,500 and the associated savings for the client exceeded $100 million! Similarly, in the second case, the economist's report has significantly redefined the range of economic loss being considered. In short, one uses an economist as an expert when there is a solid business case to do so.

Are there minimal damages one should consider before hiring an economist?

This issue is subjective, but in general, if the case is worth at least, $100,000, then it may be worth considering use of an economic expert. Incidentally, in most personal injury or wrongful death cases, an experienced forensic economist should be able to provide a "guesstimate" of economic damages for a fee of $300-500. This is provided informally by ony a few experts, e.g.. presented via phone conversation, using minimal research, and not involving any written letters, or reports.

What factors are most important in choosing an economist?

OK, but what does an economic expert actually do?
  - There are least two ways to answer this question. First, economists offer analysis consisting of several steps:

For the plaintiff, the expert writes a report, cites sources, and attaches spreadsheet models and references. For defense, the expert can use this same general outline and also estimate damages and/or develop a line of questions for the opposition, e.g.. "What was your theory of damages?" Or, in a death case, the defense expert might suggest using the following sort of questions ..." In projecting foregone lifetime earnings, how did you consider the fact that Mrs. Jones had a terminal illness and a 75% chance of death in 5 years?"

How does an economist help litigation?
  - During litigation economic experts provide the following services:

When should you use an economist and when should you use an accountant?

The roles and uses of these two groups can overlap, but are somewhat distinct. In general, economists are used more in situations requiring economic modeling, forecasts, statistical analyses, and market assessments, whereas accountants are used more in situations involving the uses of accounting data, cost analysis and income taxes. Moreover, the two roles can be highly complementary, especially in cases which involve substantial data processing in response to an economic theory of damages.

What tips are there regarding hiring and managing an economic expert?

The process is not unlike hiring any other management consultant. While lists of expert economists are available from Bar Associations, legal publications and related sources, word of mouth and referrals are the most likely ways in which one hires an economist. Frequently, experts make presentations to law firms or continuing education seminars on a case or particularly sensitive or complicated economic issue. This is a good opportunity for exchange and for evaluating the individual.

The retention process should involve checking for possible conflicts of interest, a written agreement on scope of work, fees and expenses, and may involve a small retainer. It is not ethical for the expert to be paid on a contingency basis when doing plaintiff work. On most cases, early in the engagement the expert should provide the client with an overall management plan which outlines tasks, resources and milestones. This greatly reduces surprises, enhances communication and overall quality of results.

During the engagement, the client should expect regular reports, briefings and other progress statements in addition to invoices for fees and expenses.

What are the most problematic issues which arise estimating economic damages?
  - Again, this issue is subjective, but four issues are nearly always the main source of contention. These are: