“Beyond-the-Booth” – Expert Witness: Robert Harrison

Robert Harrison, Senior Scientist and Director of the Auditory Science Lab at the Hospital for Sick Children; Professor and Vice-Chair in Research for the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Toronto

Audiologists are regulated health care professionals who assess, diagnose and treat hearing and balance problems. Audiologists educate on the prevention and management of hearing loss. For these reasons, audiologists are deemed to be experts on matters of hearing loss, hearing devices, speech communication, and auditory function.

As an avid viewer of crime dramas on TV, the word ‘expert’ reminds me of expert witnesses being called to take the stand. Two of my family members have been called upon to be an expert witness. But is the courtroom unchartered territory for the audiology profession? What is the role of an audiologist-expert witness? What is involved in being an expert witness in legal cases involving hearing and balance function?

Our second “Beyond-the-Booth” features the role as an expert witness for hearing-related cases. We interviewed Dr. Robert Harrison, who is a renowned hearing scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto. His research includes both animal studies of the peripheral auditory system and applied/clinical research of development in children who use cochlear implants. He is also the author in a new column, “From the Labs to the Clinics”, of CAA’s Canadian Audiologist.

How did you get into the field of hearing research, and what career development opportunities were available to you?

My first research projects were on circadian rhythms and the control of these through processing in the visual system. That took me to an interest in vision research, and my first interview for PhD studentship was related to potential study of the retina. Then, someone took me aside and explained that in the big world of science there are thousands of researchers working on vision but fewer, by an order of magnitude, working on hearing and deafness. I saw more opportunity for progress (and employment) in auditory science.

Has there been an experience that was particularly memorable?

One memorable experience was the time when I had to choose between staying in France at the University of Bordeaux, and coming to Canada. I had a tenured job in a warm and sunny European place and on the other hand, the offer of a good position at SickKids but with a somewhat “harsher” climate. I had to choose!

What is your current position and what does that entail?

I am a Senior Scientist, in the Program in Neuroscience and Mental Health at SickKids. I am appointed at the University of Toronto as Professor, and Vice-Chair (research) of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery. So I spend most of my time in research and some of my time in teaching, plus numerous administrative duties.

When and why were you asked to be an expert witness? Please describe what you can of the experience. What did it entail? How did you provide information? What kind of questions were you asked?

I have been an expert witness in about a dozen cases. For all of them I was approached by US lawyers who appeared to understand my area of expertise. In some cases, when I heard the “bare facts” I turned down the invitation to act as an expert. Essentially I did not see any real case. Very often the request to be involved was accompanied by the offer of a cash retainer up front. This I always declined.

Some of the cases were resolved by using my opinion in some preliminary (non-legal) process. Most involved having to make a legal deposition, and half of the cases ended up in court.

In almost all cases I testified for the plaintive, and in cases that involved hearing or vestibular loss after administration of ototoxic drugs (e.g. aminoglycosides, loop diuretics etc.) or in matters related to cochlear implantation.

What has been the most challenging part of being an expert witness?

If you are hired as an expert witness you are essentially being paid to support the legal action of your payer. If you “sign up” to do that, then you have to be sure that you actually agree with the guilt of the other party. The most challenging part is to stay completely honest.

What have you learned from being an expert witness?

There are many things learned. First, the legal system is not science. There are no levels of statistical probability regarding validity of evidence. Something is either true of false. The whole system operates on a fifty-fifty basis. In a jury trial, the most important determining factor is the jury selection. There are many rules that restrict an expert witness from getting important points heard. Most shocking about a trial is that there is more time spent on trying to discredit the expert than on the details of the expert testimony.

How can an audiologist become an expert witness?

All of my expert witness work has been done in the US, where non-medical experts are often used in court cases. I have been up against some PhD (or AuD) audiologists in cases that I was involved in. In Canada I believe, but I may be wrong, that non-MD clinicians cannot act as expert witnesses. I don’t know this for sure, but I have never been asked to act within the Canadian system.

What tips and advice can you give for audiologists who might be asked to be an expert witness?

Decide whether to act on a case AFTER you fully understand it. Do not take a retainer up front; this can tie your hand too early in the process. In a full trial involving initial deposition (under oath) and later interrogation, do not change in any way your testimony. Any discrepancy in your advice will make it invalid. This is part of the process to discredit the expert.

What advice do you have for prospective and current audiology and hearing science students?

If you get the chance to participate in a legal system as an expert witness, then do it to get the experience. My experience has been limited to the US. You may find, as I have, that it is one of the most convoluted and corrupt industries that exist. Believe me it the US medico-legal system is a full-blown money spinning industry!

Have you participated as an audiology expert witness? If so, comment below with your experiences. 

Authors: Robert Harrison, Melissa Polonenko, Homira Osman

Robert Harrison

Melissa Polonenko

Homira Osman


One Reply to ““Beyond-the-Booth” – Expert Witness: Robert Harrison”

  1. Thanks for sharing! I don't know about audiologists, but other non-MDs have been called as expert witnesses in Canadian cases (e.g., optometrists).

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