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An hour of expert witness time, $4,000

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times staff writer
Published July 21, 2007


Things didn't look good for Patrick Henry Stewart.

The mid level finance manager had pleaded guilty to stealing $1.8-million from St. Petersburg manufacturer Jabil Circuit over two years, and he awaited sentencing. Federal guidelines called for 41 to 51 months behind bars.

But U.S. District Court Judge James Moody Jr. reduced the punishment to one year of house arrest and five years' probation. The difference, it appeared, was Tampa psychiatrist Michael Sheehan. At the sentencing hearing, Sheehan testified that the culprit behind Stewart's larceny was Paxil, an antidepressant that can cause bipolar-disorder sufferers to violate their own moral code.

Chalk up another win for expert witnesses. In courtrooms across the America, these brains-for-hire are educating judges and juries about everything from aircraft decompression to zinc alloys. ALMexperts.com, a clearinghouse for expert witnesses, lists 627 in Florida alone.

You don't necessarily need a PhD to qualify, or even a high-school diploma. If you have a question about whether a roof was laid properly, you could hire a roofer. Think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, and her character's mind-blowing testimony about "positraction" and the 1963 Pontiac Tempest.

Still, credentials are pretty much the coin of the realm. Some witnesses are so well-regarded in their field that merely announcing that they have been retained can drive the opposition to fold. James Mangraviti Jr., co-author of How to Become a Dangerous Expert Witness and related titles, says he recently learned of an expert who bills $4,000 per hour, or about four times the normal high. Hourly rates generally range from $100 to $1,000. Being a Nobel Prize winner apparently doesn't hurt.

Judges and juries view full-time expert witnesses skeptically. "If you have a doctor who hasn't treated a patient in 10 years, that's going to be a problem," says Mangraviti, whose Cape Cod consultancy helps subject-matter authorities become better witnesses.

Daniel Buffington, who is CEO of Clinical Pharmacology Services in Tampa and teaches at the University of South Florida medical school, says the fact that he testifies for and against professionals builds trust with juries. In 2005, he helped the parents of an Orange County boy get a $10-million verdict after their son died from a misprescribed drug. Last year, he testified on behalf of a South Florida physician who was cleared of civil negligence claims that he fatally delayed refilling a prescription.

So where are all the nonmedical experts? Everywhere, says Mangraviti. Nonmedical specialists account for roughly half of all expert testimony. James Gault, advertising sales director at ALM Experts, says a large chunk of the 4,000 categories his company maintains concern topics besides health. Examples include wrestling accidents, church valuation, potato processing and Mexican tax law.

But no "Paxil defense" yet.

Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Got a favorite legal flick?

From The Caine Mutiny and Kramer vs. Kramer to A Few Good Men, dozens of Hollywood films have centered around lawyers and the courts. Which ones are the best? How about the worst? Please e-mail your votes and the reasons behind them to me at barancik@sptimes.com.

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