What is an Expert?

As a frequent witness in disputes involving golf property valuation or other economic issues related to golf courses and clubs, there’s usually a process of qualification where I’m asked about my qualifications and experience to be approved by the court as an “expert” on matters relating to golf properties.

Dictionary.com defines an expert as “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority”.  The interpretation of the term expert is typically varied.  I’ve observed appraisers accepted as experts in golf property valuation cases with little more than a state certification and maybe a professional appraisal designation, despite having little or no actual experience having appraised a golf course property.

Breaking down the definition of expert would seem to help in defining who is truly an expert qualified to testify in court.

“A person who has special skill or knowledge” in the context of valuation of golf properties can be interpreted very broadly.  Does it mean simply that the appraiser is certified or designated as a real estate appraiser?  Or does it mean that he/she possesses a unique and extensive level of skill and experience in appraising golf properties?  Often, courts will allow those who are simply certified or designated as appraisers to be accepted as experts despite having limited skill or knowledge in the valuation of golf properties. Does the expert even have to be an appraiser?  Sometimes, experts are brokers or investors and developers that may or may not specialize in golf who may not even be licensed as appraisers.   This conflicts with the requirements for experts in other fields who are often held to a higher standard that may include a specific board certification for a specialty or experience dealing with the specific issue being debated.

“Some particular field” can mean several things.  Is the field appraisal?  Is it golf?  Is it golf appraisal?  This qualification is subject to interpretation by either the parties or the judge.  I’ve observed residential real estate agents act as experts in golf property valuation cases simply because they were real estate professionals.

In my opinion, where “the rubber meets the road” is the part of the definition suggesting that the expert is a “specialist or authority”.  A specialist is defined as “a person who devotes himself or herself to one subject or to one particular branch of a subject or pursuit.”  In most other professions (law, medicine, etc.) it is common for practitioners to focus on a particular area.  Cardiologists work on the heart.  Tax Lawyers only work on tax law.  In the real estate appraisal profession, more practitioners seek and accept assignments of all types and might only focus on a certain geographic location rather than specializing in a certain area like tax assessment or eminent domain or a specific property type like golf courses or hotels.  It’s not at all uncommon to seek a specialist for any number of medical issues we may encounter.  A specific knowledge in a certain area of appraisal affords a higher level of expertise and results in a better chance for a job done to the highest standard.

The highest form of expertise is authority.  This is defined as “an accepted source of information or advice”.  Designation as an authority often comes from being published in recognized journals, authorship of widely accepted books or being invited to make verbal presentations to peers or members of a certain industry.

What is an expert?  The ultimate decision in a court case is made by the judge.  In other situations the criteria can change or vary dramatically based on one’s perspective. Four important traits to consider include:

  1. Credibility
  2. Qualifications
  3. Objectivity
  4. Communication Skills

Most important, in my opinion is credibility.  Litigation being adversarial can often motivate the expert witness to advocate their client’s interest.  We all want our clients to prevail but compromising one’s professional credibility is actually more likely to hurt the client than help.  Being an expert witness is a privilege in that you’ve been entrusted with not only developing a professional opinion but also being asked to articulate that opinion, often under intense scrutiny from a cross-examining attorney whose job it is to impeach you.

In choosing an expert witness, be careful to select the professional exhibiting the traits and characteristics outlined here and give your case the best chance for success.