Experts and their reports can be an expensive, but necessary, element to many types of cases. This is particularly true in divorce cases, whether they are personal or business divorces. In all cases, it is incumbent on the attorney, client, and expert to all have the same understanding of the scope of the work and expectations on expense. Sometimes, it is not possible to absolutely predict how much litigation will cost or account for every variable or obstacle to a project. Consequently, the costs of a case or preparation of an expert report can exceed the expectations of a client.

A recent Superior Court case dealing with an insurance report highlights the problem created by different understandings and expectations between an attorney and the expert he hired on behalf of his clients. More pointedly, it reaffirms the concept that the engagement letter between an attorney and expert (or client and expert) is an enforceable contract and that an oral estimate of costs will not serve to modify or supersede it.

In the case of MCMP v. Gelman, attorney Bruce Gelman hired Marsico Construction Services and their principal, Louis S. Marsico, to provide expert testimony and a report for an insurance coverage dispute Gelman’s clients had with their homeowner’s insurance carrier.  Marsico provided the report, which was submitted by Gelman to opposing counsel and the insurance company. However, when Marsico provided his invoice to Gelman, it had costs totaling about $30,000.00 – considerably above Gelman’s expectation based on Marsico’s rough estimate of the cost being between $7,500.00 to $10,000.00. Gelman refused to pay the cost and Marsico demanded that he not use the report in the insurance coverage dispute or at trial. Though not noted in the case, the report is considered hearsay unless otherwise stipulated to and if Marsico refused to testify, Gelman would have been unable to move the report into evidence. Once barred from using the report further, Gelman would later claim that by not having a report, the case settled for less than it could have.

Gelman’s appeal tried to assert that the oral estimate provided by Marsico constituted an enforceable, orally accepted express contract term between Gelman and Marsico’s company. The lynchpin of the case, however, is the engagement letter: Gelman agreed to pay Marsico an hourly rate and Marsico was awarded $20,000.00 after a two-day bench trial for breach of contract.

On appeal, the Superior Court rejected Gelman’s arguments and found that the hourly rate engagement was valid and that the estimate provided by Marsico was “off the cuff” and not an express contract term. That point was particularly true since a written engagement letter with specific terms for the firm’s consulting services followed the oral estimate.

The takeaway from the case applies to clients and attorneys: understand the terms of your engagement letter for professional services. Review them and ask questions about any term you do not understand. Addressing a misunderstanding on the precipice of trial leaves you with few options and may severely prejudice the client (another issue altogether). As seen in this case, the courts will not step in to fix your error or accept a modification to the contract that does not strictly conform the Pennsylvania law on express and oral contracts. You do not want to find yourself paying for a report that only collect dusts in the file.

In May I wrote about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s split decision (resulting in affirmation) on protecting the communication between attorneys and the experts working on their cases. This was an important decision for a number of reasons, but despite the affirmation of the lower court’s decision, the fact it was a 3-3 split with some dissent made it precedence, but not without some concern that another case could cause the courts to shift course again.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now taken that decision one-step further and codified it as the new Rule 4003.5 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. Unlike the Federal rule on attorney-expert communications, the Pennsylvania rule has no exceptions to its prohibition against producing this information. Some attorneys have cited concerns about this rule effectively making it impossible to detect manipulation of their opponent’s expert or the expert simply signing their name to a report prepared by the attorney. Nevertheless,this “bright-line rule” has gone into effect and precludes any production of communication between an expert and the attorney.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.

 

Psst, can I stop whispering in your ear and just email you instead? Its work-product.
Psst, can I stop whispering in your ear and just email you instead? Its protected as work-product.

Many of my cases involve the use of expert witnesses; individuals hired to review and testify about a specific issue or topic. Usually they are financial experts whose job is value a particular asset such as a business, while other experts could be psychologists conducting a custody evaluation. In other areas of law, there are individuals qualified as experts in virtually every conceivable topic and issue.  Whatever the underlying issue of a case, it is reasonable to assume there is an expert out there prepared to testify about it.

Consequently, communication between an attorney and the expert working on the case is critical and often encompasses trial strategy. It is vitally important that the expert and the attorney can openly and easily communicate about the case.  Not too long ago, however, this relationship and communication became subject to discovery in the case of Barrick et al. v. Holy Spirit Hospital of the Sisters of the Christian Charity et al.  At the time, the trial court ruled that expert testimony was subject to Pennsylvania’s liberal discovery rules and should be turned over to the other side. This was a radical departure from commonly held beliefs and practices protecting this communication and created significant consternation among attorneys.

The Superior Court heard the case in 2011 and overruled the trial court’s decision and barred the production of communication between a surgeon serving as an expert and the plaintiff’s attorney in a personal injury case. Attorneys across the state breathed a sigh of relief; they could actually email their experts again.

Recently, any ambiguity was mostly removed when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court’s decision through a split, 3-3 decision (an evenly divided court results in affirmation of the Superior Court decision). I say mostly because it was a 3-3 split, but in affirming the decision, three justices created a bright-line rule denying the production of expert/attorney communication.

The argument that communications with experts did not fall within the work-product doctrine of confidentiality and were critical for counsel to the cross-examination and critiquing by counsel was not accepted by the Court. The Court felt that by having the opportunity to cross-examine the expert, there was sufficient opportunity to attack his/her opinion without having to divulge communications between the expert and attorney.

This is an important decision in Pennsylvania and affects every litigator, regardless of area of expertise and will allow for experts and attorneys to freely exchange ideas without fear that they will turn into trial exhibits.

Photo Credit: www.health.com

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a resident of Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty