It appears we’re poised to see some changes to Federal Rule of Evidence section 702 for the first time since the 2000 amendments.
In an excellent article published by Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig LLP, attorney Scott Hefner provided an excellent history of FRE 702 and a summary of the proposed amendments which if adopted by the Supreme Court, will go into effect in 2023.
Mr. Hefner provided an outstanding summary of the Daubert Standard and its codification and I encourage you to read his article for further depth. I just wanted to provide the existing rule and the proposed changes for your review, so that you and your expert witness practice can be prepared for the possible changes to FRE 702.
Existing Rule 702:
A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
a. the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
b. the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
c. the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
d. the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
Proposed Rule 702:
A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the proponent has demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that:
a. the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
b. the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
c. the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
d. expert’s opinion reflects a reliable application of the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
For your convenience, I’ve bolded the changes in the proposed rule. In my reading, the only real substantive change is “the proponent has demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence…” This is the standard that has always applied, but the advisory committee decided they needed to clarify the standard. Mr. Hefner’s article notes that the committee included the standard to “dispel the notion that expert testimony is presumed to be admissible.” In the years I’ve been working in the expert witness field, I’ve never known this to be presumed. In fact, since law school (i.e. as long as I can remember), the rule has always been that the court serves as the gatekeeper for allowing expert testimony.
Now, I would love feedback from readers on the other “substantive” change to section 702(d). When I look at the existing subsection and the proposed changes, it is difficult to identify how this will actually change anything in practice.
In fact, it seems Mr. Hefner and I are in full agreement on this subsection change. He even mentions, “The practical implications of the amendments remain up for debate.” To take it a step further, he quotes the Federal Magistrate Judges Association as viewing the proposal as not making changes at all but rather “largely clarifying existing practice.”
What do you think?
Do you think this proposal will have any substantive or practical effects? Let us know what you think in the comments or drop us an email at email@example.com.
$117 million talcum powder Mesothelioma verdict overturned by failure of the trial court to follow their gate-keeping role.
In an article today from Husch Blackwell, they highlight a case in which a significant verdict for the plaintiffs was recently overturned by the appellate court for failures to conduct a proper Daubert analysis.
As most of our members are aware, a “Daubert hearing” or “Daubert review” is the standard used by the trial court for admitting expert witness testimony. It is the federal standard for admitting expert witness testimony, but the standard has been adopted by a majority of US states.
For your brief review, I’ve decided to add the elements of the Daubert test below, from Cornell Law School:
whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested;
whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication;
its known or potential error rate;
the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation;
whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.
There have been a wide variety of mesothelioma lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of baby powder products. Generally speaking, the issue arises from long-term talcum powder use allegedly exposing plaintiffs to asbestos in the talcum powder which causes mesothelioma.
In my 11 years in the expert witness field, there have only been a couple toxic tort matters where the science has been as fiercely contested as it is in the talcum powder cases. The only other cases in recent memory where the science is hotly debated involves lymphoma resulting from the herbicide Round-Up. The Round-Up lawsuits resulted in an $11B settlement between plaintiffs and defendants.
This talcum powder case out of New Jersey, was very similar to the other talcum powder cases. The plaintiffs, Stephen Lanzo III and his wife sued a variety of defendants including one Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, claiming Mr. Lanzo’s long-term use of baby powder caused him to contract mesothelioma.
The trial judge permitted testimony from two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. James S. Webber, Ph.D. and Jacqueline Moline, M.D. On appeal, the 3-judge panel overturned the verdict because they didn’t think the trial court applied a proper Daubert standard in permitting the testimony from doctors Webber and Moline.
According to the article from Husch Blackwell attorney Brittany Lomax, the appellate court basically found that three prongs of the Daubert test were not met, “Namely, the opinions and theories were not tested, not subject to peer review and publication, and were not generally accepted in the scientific community. The panel further held that the trial court did not perform ‘its required gatekeeping function’ by failing to conduct a proper analysis to determine whether the expert opinions met the Daubert standards and failing to assess the methodology or the underlying data used by the two experts to form their opinions.”
As a result, the appellate court remanded to the trial court and ordered new trials for two of the defendants.
It is worth noting, this is a major win for defendants in these talcum powder cases. It appears the appeals courts, at least in New Jersey, are going to review scientific evidence with exceptional rigor.
Before Nikola and the Trevor Milton scandal, there was a prominent blood-testing startup called Theranos. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, currently faces a criminal fraud trial.
If you’ve been tuning into business news recently, the latest scandal with Nikola, a electric-powered truck manufacturer, and its founder, Trevor Milton, is no surprise to you.
For those who have not been following along, a quick summary is as follows: Nikola (NKLA) recently became a publicly traded company alleging they had hydrogen fuel cell (battery) technology that would revolutionize the trucking business. The stock did well after IPO. Nikola then did a multi-billion dollar deal with General Motors. The stock went higher. A few days after the GM deal, a short-seller released a report that accused them of a being an intricately constructed fraud. The founder, Trevor Milton, contested the accusations on social media and asked for time so he could rebut all of the allegations. Within a couple of days he went silent, was removed as executive chairman, and deactivated his social media accounts. It has been widely reported that both the SEC and DOJ are conducting investigations related to his actions and claims as founder and executive chairman.
I share that story because some news agencies have suggested Trevor Milton’s story is similar to that of Theranos founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Ms. Holmes is now facing a criminal fraud trial and she is the focus of our our post today. Stay tuned next week for some further discussion on the issues surrounding Nikola.
Elizabeth Holmes founded a privately held biotechnology company called Theranos. The company intended to revolutionize blood tests, with just a drop of blood. No more needles and vials, just a small drop of blood, and the tests results would be available rapidly. Ultimately, they failed to deliver tangible results and led consumers to believe false promises. After receiving more than $700 million in private investment, the company began falling apart.
In Spring 2018, Holmes was charged with fraud by the SEC, as reported by Bloomberg. This being a civil action, Holmes settled it without admitting any of the allegations. The settlement required her to relinquish her shares to the company and abstain from being an officer or director of a public company for a period of 10 years. There was also a fine, according to Barron’s. To the best of my recollection, Ms. Holme’s settled with the SEC on the same day she was charged.
In the Summer of 2018, the US Attorney’s office filed charges against Holmes’ for conspiracy and wire fraud, as reported by CNN. This criminal indictment is the inspiration for this blog post.
For more than 2 years, we’ve followed the developments in the criminal prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes, wondering if it would lead us to an interesting analysis from an expert witness perspective. In September of 2020, I found this article from the New York Daily News. It seems Ms. Holmes is preparing for the use of a “mental disease or defect” defense.
More specifically, the article from the New York Daily News, indicated the judge had assigned a neuropsychologist and psychiatrist to conduct a two-day, 14 hour evaluation of Ms. Holmes. Additionally, this evaluation is to be recorded. Now, I had never heard of psychological evaluation being this long and I worked in the mental health field for years before joining Experts.com.
To the best of my knowledge, I had not heard about the “mental disease or defect” defense since law school. I remembered it as a mitigating factor to a crime. Something we learned about when we learned about defenses and factors related to defenses.
So, I did what I usually do with these blog posts, and reached out to the experts. This time, I thought it would be good to get insights from a federal public defender and a psychiatrist.
First, let’s see get a view of the legal opinion…
Analysis from Federal Defense Attorney, Diego Alcalá-Laboy:
Diego Alcalá-Laboy is a criminal defense attorney with his own practice Defensoria Legal, LLC, in Puerto Rico, where he represents federal criminal defendants and advises startups. He is also an adjunct professor at the Inter-American University, School of Law and teaches the Federal Evidence and Federal Criminal Procedure courses at the University of Puerto Rico Law School’s Federal Bar Review.
Nick Rishwain: Why would one use a defense of “mental disease” and what impact might it have on the case?
Diego Alcala: A prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended to commit an act (mens rea), and that he committed the act (actus rea). And most crimes require that the defendant acted intelligently, knowingly, or willfully, and on some occasions recklessly or negligently. The type of “mens rea” a crime requires is defined by Congress and the interpretations given by the courts. On some occasions, an offense may not even require a mens rea, such as with strict liability offenses.
Crimes may have different elements, and a prosecutor may have to prove that the defendant had the required mens rea to commit each element of the offense. If the prosecutor cannot prove this, the defendant may be found not guilty.
Congress also recognized that a defendant may show that because of a medical defect he was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his or her acts because of a severe mental disease or defect. After the John Hinkley trial, Congress amended its statutes and eliminated the affirmative defense of diminished capacity but allowed a defendant the possibility to attack an element of an offense because of a mental condition.
This is a lot harder than it sounds. The Courts are the gatekeepers of the any scientific testimony intended to be presented at trial. Therefore, whenever a defense of mental defect is offered by a defendant, the Court must ensure that the evidence offered is grounded in sufficient scientific support. This scientific evidence then must be scientifically sound and must also show that the medical condition negates mens rea of an element of the offense. So, a defense of mental defect, if grounded on scientific basis, and shows that it negates an element of the charged crime, will clear the defendant from a particular case.
NR: Have you ever seen a “mental disease” defense used in a criminal fraud matter?
DA: I have never seen a mental disease defense presented before. But I did find some cases where the defense tried to introduce this type of evidence but was ruled inadmissible because it did not satisfy the Court that the proffered evidence: a) was based on sound scientific principles, or b) even if it was based on sound principles, it failed to negate mens rea for the element(s) of the offense. In fraud cases, a defendant is accused of committing some type of false representation. It follows that the evidence of mental disease must show that if his/her medical condition can be logically connected to a subjective belief that his/her assertions were not false, baseless, or reckless vis-a-vis the truth. I have not found a fraud case in which the defense has been able to overcome this burden.
NR: If it is established that Elizabeth Holmes is suffering from “mental disease,” can she still be held criminally liable for her actions?
DA: If a defendant presents a successful mental disease defense, the federal law states that she will be found not guilty. But a finding of not guilty does not necessarily mean that she is free to leave. A determination of not guilty by reason of mental defect will then place a defendant in a “suitable facility” and may be release only after showing that she is no longer a threat.
NR: Does a “mental disease” defense have much success in federal criminal trials?
DA: As mentioned, I have not found a successful case, and primarily the difficulty lies in the very narrow type of cases that may meet the discussed admissibility standard. Even if she can get this evidence into trial, it is still up to the jury to accept this defense.
Now that we have some idea of the application of the law for fraud in federal criminal cases, we need to review the science as outlined by Mr. Alcalá.
Analysis from Forensic Psychiatrist and Expert Witness Dr. Sanjay Adhia:
Dr. Sanjay Adhia is triple-Board-Certified in Forensic Psychiatry, Brain Injury Medicine, and Psychiatry. Dr. Adhia serves as a Psychiatrist and Brain Injury Medicine specialist at TIRR Hermann Memorial, a Rehabilitation and Research hospital treating those with brain and spinal cord injuries and psychiatric elements of their injury and recovery. In private forensic practice he conducts Independent Medical Examinations (IMEs), and renders his opinions by report and testimony. Dr. Adhia serves on the faculty of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. You can visit his website at: forensicpsychiatrynow.com.
Nick Rishwain: According to the psychiatric community, what constitutes “mental disease” and “mental defect?”
Sanjay Adhia, MD: These are more legal terms rather than actual formal psychiatric definitions.
According to Merriam-Webster, the legal definition of “mental disease” is “an abnormal mental condition that interferes with mental or emotional processes and internal behavioral control and that is not manifest only in repeated criminal or antisocial conduct”.
Examples would include Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder which are considered Severe Mental Illness (SMI). These conditions may lead to psychiatric hospitalization. The conditions maybe associated with and loss of touch with reality and a lack of volitional control.
“Mental defect,” on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “an abnormal mental condition (as mental retardation) that may be of a more fixed nature than a mental disease”. “Fixed” disorders would include Intellectual Developmental Disorder (IDD; formerly known as mental retardation), Autism and Brain Injury. According to this definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) would be excluded. ASPD is marked by a tendency to lie, break laws, and act impulsively. It shares some features with psychopathy or sociopathy. A number of states do not permit the use of ASPD in the insanity defense. Allowing ASPD would have unintended repercussions. For example, it could potentially permit a defendant like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer to avoid prison.
NR: In the court order, it limits the evaluation of Ms. Holmes to a 14 hour, 2-day, psychiatric examination. Is this out of the ordinary in a criminal matter?
SA: There is a wide range of exam times in criminal cases. It would depend on a variety of factors including the type of case, the jurisdiction, the funding available and the severity of the charge. Assessment time in a misdemeanor will not be identical to a capital case. Ms. Holmes’ case is not a capital case, but it helps to understand differences in how long the examination might take. The exam time in a Competency to Stand Trial for a misdemeanor trespassing case would likely be under two hours. I have seen some examiners spend 30 minutes for the interview in such cases. The other extreme would be Capital cases which could go over 8 hours or several days; this is especially true if neurocognitive testing is required, which can take an entire day.
Again, in a capital case the threshold and the stakes are very high—especially in death penalty cases that often go to the appeals court.
In misdemeanor cases, you may have a single mental health expert and the findings may be accepted without the need for an opposing expert. In Capital cases, the defense itself may retain several mental health and other medical experts (i.e. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome experts). In the Holmes case, the 14 hours is to be shared between a forensic neuropsychologist and a forensic psychiatrist.
As it is a high-profile case, it is possible that the court may allow additional funds or there maybe a willingness of the expert to work within a budget.
It is my experience that the examination in insanity cases take more time than other types of cases as you have to elicit a detailed account of the crime from the defendant and then determine the mental state at a time in the past and consider malingering (lying for secondary gain—like a lesser sentence). I suspect in the Holmes case, it is likely the charges are not limited to one circumscribed incident so it could take additional time. It is worth noting that time spent reviewing records and preparing a report could exceed twenty hours or more.
NR: What information might you need to establish or rebut an insanity defense?
SA: In addition to interviewing the defendant, it would be helpful to review medical records, legal records along with police records and videos. I often will interview collateral informants as well. In Ms. Holmes’s case there maybe, media accounts, if admissible, as well as financial records and corporate documents. Of course, an expert would review the other expert witness reports. Records in a violent crime could include an autopsy, or blood splatter expert reports, for example. In the Holmes case, there may be a forensic accounting or fraud expert report. Other sources of data could include polygraph testing, school records and employment records.
NR: In the Holmes case, the defense has retained a trauma expert. Is it common to successfully assert an insanity defense in cases of PTSD?
SA: Insanity defenses are more commonly associated with other diagnoses that are considered to be more severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and IDD because they have a different impact on decision-making and regulating behavior. Although many individuals with PTSD do suffer with severe symptoms, they are generally able to maintain awareness of the nature of their acts and appreciate the wrongfulness of such acts. In jurisdictions that allow for the volitional prong, individuals with PTSD are generally considered to be able to behave lawfully. Of course, there are cases where PTSD is successfully asserted as an insanity defense. In cases where the defense attorney realizes the PTSD does not lend itself for an insanity defense, they may successfully utilize it for sentence mitigation.
United States v. Bennett,29 F. Supp. 2d 236 (E.D.Pa. 1997), aff’d 161 F.3d 171, 183 (3d Cir.1998), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 819, 120 S. Ct. 61, 145 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1999)
Remote depositions appear to be growing. As an expert witness, what should you do to improve your presentation and performance to maintain credibility and authority?
As more professionals work from home, remote depositions will continue to rise in popularity and usage. But, the extent of the rise is hard to tell since there is a lack of any hard data on the subject. One of our contributors, Isaiah Leslie, has provided some anecdotal information on the subject. We know court hearings and administrative meetings are taking place remotely. In an article from the Fort Worth Star Telegram, we learn about what may be the first remote jury trial in the U.S., which occurred in Texas. With an increase in remote hearings, depositions, and even jury trials, we wanted to give you some information about presentation and performance as an expert witness in remote deposition.
There have been an abundance of articles discussing remote depositions, but none of them appear to cover best practices for the deponent and, relevant to Experts.com members, the expert witness. Instead, the articles discuss the law permitting remote depositions; the local rules to be followed; agreements between lawyers about sharing of discoverable information; procedures for exhibits; whether the deposition is going to be taken by video conference or the deposition is being video recorded; and operation of several of the remote video platforms. The information is important for all parties to a litigation, but none of it helpful to the deponent.
To this end, I had to do some digging and contact a bunch of folks for their insights. We received some great feedback from court reporters, court videographers, and live video marketing professionals. Below is a summary of suggested best practices for expert witnesses before and during a remote deposition, focusing on presentation, apparel, lighting, audio, video, and overall performance.
Increase in Remote Depositions:
One of our contributors, Isaiah Leslie, a co-founder and partner at Regal Court Reporting, provided us with the best data on the increase in remote depositions from his company’s personal experience. In March of 2020, only 2.6% of their depositions were remote. By April, all of their depositions were remote, increasing by 550%. Although remote depositions have not outnumbered their previous in-person deposition numbers, as Isaiah noted, the adoption is still significant.
The increase in remote depositions makes sense, given the shelter-in-place orders throughout the country. Many of those who adopted remote deposition by necessity have discovered its advantages. By no means am I suggesting remote depositions would replace in-person depositions entirely. However, as legal professionals become more comfortable with videoconferencing technology, it’s reasonable to anticipate continued growth in remote depositions even after COVID-19.
Legal system participants are likely to realize, if they have not already, the value of videoconferencing. It is convenient for all involved, as there is no need to travel to the deposition location. Reduced travel should lower litigation costs as parties will no longer have to pay for travel time and costs (for lawyers and expert witnesses). Most importantly at the present time, it provides the added benefit of being socially distanced.
With this expectation remote depositions will become more prevalent, even post-COVID-19, here are the suggestions from our contributors, to help you as a deponent, give your best presentation and performance.
Court Reporter Suggestions:
Isaiah Leslie and I have become friendly on Twitter, which for those who know me, is where I’ve made a significant number of professional relationships. Isaiah brought his partner and wife, Stephanie Leslie, into the conversation so we can get some outstanding suggestions direct from a court reporter who regularly participates in depositions.
As with other past blogs, I provided a variety of questions and Mrs. Leslie provided some outstanding responses (some edited for brevity and clarity).
Nick Rishwain: Have you experienced an increase in remote/virtual depositions during COVID-19?
Stephanie Leslie: We have certainly seen more remote depositions than usual, but unfortunately most law firms are still not jumping on board fully quite yet for a variety of reasons. One being their lack of comfort with the technology aspect of things. Once they try it, they typically schedule more after that. It’s just making the plunge.
NR: Based on your experience doing in-person video depositions and remote depositions, have you identified any best practices for deponent performance?
SL: The most crucial thing with remote depositions is abiding by the admonition to not talk over others. As a working reporter myself, I can attest to the fact that speakers talking over each other is always a nuisance and makes my job exponentially harder, but in remote depositions it is absolutely critical because remote platforms, such as Zoom, act similarly to a speakerphone, and it can only choose one voice to allow through the system, so if there is simultaneous speaking, I can usually hear no one. And then, to add insult to injury, if other speakers are talking, I cannot successfully interrupt and remind everyone to speak one at a time because no one can hear me either. I have found that even though it feels very tedious to go slowly and methodically, it actually makes the deposition go more quickly and smoothly.
NR: My customers are concerned with coming across as credible, knowledgeable, professional and authoritative in their field. What do you recommend for best remote deposition performance?
SL: I have taken several expert depositions recently, all remotely, and I don’t think the virtual aspect of the deposition makes much of a difference. I felt like it was any other expert deposition. It was very clear to me which experts were knowledgeable and confident about the subjects upon which they were opining, and others were obviously not as much. I think a great CV and clear opinions backed by evidence still come through clearly to all observers.
NR: Any suggestions on apparel, lighting, audio/video setup?
SL: I have seen some sharp solid-colored virtual backgrounds created with an expert firm’s logo placed in the top corner just to the side of the witness, and it is very professional looking and memorable while not detracting from the substance of the proceeding. Apparel — I suggest still making sure you’re completely professional on top. What’s on bottom is up to you! I use an inexpensive cube light to help illuminate my face, but if the room is well lit (not too much back light), I don’t think it’s particularly necessary. Audio is the most important thing. Please test your connection and audio quality beforehand!
NR: Any further suggestions I may not have asked?
SL: As usual (but even more important with remote), if you are able to provide any spellings or technical words to the stenographer before the deposition, that is always appreciated. We usually come into the case with little to no context on the facts and your background and role, so anything you can assist with along the way is invaluable!
Legal Videographer Suggestions:
Isaiah, continued to provide me with excellent access to his team and we got some outstanding feedback from Sean Malone, of Malone Video, who works primarily with Regal Court Reporting.
The same questions provided to Stephanie Leslie were also sent to Mr. Malone. His different experiences from a videographer perspective are equally beneficial to the expert witness.
Sean answered the questions in a slightly different format, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Nick Rishwain: Have you experienced an increase in remote/virtual depositions during COVID-19?
Sean Malone: Definitely. Though overall some attorneys are still hesitant to go remote, others have been willing to test, and even embrace remote depositions right now, due to the quarantine. As a legal videographer, before the quarantine I had done exactly zero remote depositions. Since the quarantine, I have done at least 2 to 3 per week, on various platforms, and all for clients that were mainly accustomed to in-person depositions before COVID-19.
For the following, questions 2-4, Sean answered the questions in aggregate. So, you don’t have to scroll up to find those questions again, I’ve added them below:
NR: Based on your experience doing in-person video depositions and remote depositions, have you identified any best practices for deponent performance?
NR: My customers are concerned with coming across as credible, knowledgeable and an authority in their field. What do you recommend for best remote deposition performance?
NR: Any suggestions on apparel, lighting, audio/video setup?
SM: As a legal videographer, the things that matter in an in-person deposition are the same things that matter for a remote deposition. For example, is the deponent well lit? Are they centered in frame? Can they be clearly seen and heard? I’d recommend a similar approach for everyone involved in a remote deposition: identify your best in-person deposition practices and translate those to the medium of video conference.
Just like in real life, the witnesses I’ve observed that come off well are the witnesses who:
Are professionally dressed.
Are well mannered/aware that they are the focus of the deposition and the video record.
Listen to and directly answer attorney questions.
One note on that last one: Just like in real life, we all know that deponents should let the taking attorney finish their question before starting to answer, and also pause a little so that the opposing attorney can get in their objections… But this is especially important during a remote deposition, because of that notorious split-second delay present in all video conferencing platforms.
To present yourself well and make the videographer love you, you can:
Make sure you are well lit, and not heavily backlit.
Make sure whatever is in the background behind you is relatively neutral and not distracting (in other words, maybe take that Backstreet Boys poster down before logging on).
Make sure the area around you is tidy and free from clutter.
Make sure the camera built into your computer is as close to your eye-level as possible. If the camera is too low, like on your lap for instance, everyone will view you (and the video record will capture you) from an unflattering, upward angle. Eye-level or at least face-level is the best idea for a flattering shot of you.
Ideal framing is you in the center of the frame, with your torso and head visible in frame, with a little bit of headroom on top (headroom is the small space between the top of your head and the top of the frame). See picture:
Make sure you are joining the video conference from a reliable device that has a decent camera and microphone built in.
Make sure that device is charged!
Some additional tips on your Internet connection. So that your testimony can be captured optimally by both the court reporter, and the videographer, make sure your Internet connection is as strong as possible. Office internet is more robust than home internet, but if you are at home, you can try:
Connecting your device via Ethernet cable rather than WiFi.
If you cannot connect via Ethernet cable, choose the spot in your home with the strongest WiFi signal.
Ask other members of your household to refrain from moderate or heavy Internet use that day (e.g. have them avoid streaming TV, playing online games, etc.)
NR: Any further suggestions I may not have asked?
SM: I always like to say that everyone in a deposition has a job to do. Therefore, I try to help others do their jobs well, by doing my job well. I think that approach can be helpful no matter what your job is!
As we feel this is going to be a growing experience for witnesses and expert witnesses, we wanted to create a blog post that is truly helpful to your presentation and performance. So, we brought in one more voice to help you nail that remote deposition!
Live Video Marketing Professional Suggestions:
As some of my readers know, I’ve been doing live video since about 2015. However, I do it as a hobby. Our next contributor does it professionally and has written a book on the subject. I’m just lucky enough to know her and call her a friend. Jennifer Quinn, is a leading consultant on Internet live-streaming. I reached out to her and asked her for her input regarding presentation and performance.
Here are the suggestions provided direct from Jenny. In this instance, I asked questions more generally and Jenny gave me us some outstanding suggestions, all of which should be considered for remote depositions.
NR: I’m looking for suggested best practices. How would you want an expert witness to be prepared for remote deposition? What best practices do you suggest?
Jennifer Quinn: The fastest way to build trust with someone is to show up the way they expect you to show up. Traditionally, as an expert witness, you would arrive, dressed professionally, sit upright, and be fully prepared for the deposition.
The question most expert witnesses have today is how to transfer that same level of authority, and trust one would have face to face or in-person to a video format.
There are a few quick and easy ways to convey instant authority and credibility when preparing for a video deposition.
Pay attention to your background – be sure it conveys professionalism.
Dress the same way you would dress if you were attending court in person.
Make virtual eye contact with the video viewers by looking directly into the lens of the camera. Yes, this will feel awkward; however, it is possibly the most crucial skill you can master if you want to instantly build trust in this new era of video. Looking directly into the lens of the camera simulates eye contact and conveys authenticity more powerfully than anything else you can do when recording video.
In my book, I reference the need to pay attention to L.A.V.S.: Lighting, Audio, Video, Stability.
Daylight – sit in front of the window with the light shining in on your face.
Ring light – clips on to your phone.
Box lighting – home office studio setup.
Turn off the overhead lighting in the room.
Earbuds with built-in mic.
Cell phone camera.
Keep the lens camera at eye level.
Look into the lens.
Prop phone up – at eye level (think books, boxes, etc.).
Tripod or mount.
Desktop/laptop – don’t bump desk or table.
There you have it. Four different individuals telling you how to up your remote deposition game as remote depositions have drastically increased in the last 90 days.
Throughout shelter-in-place, many lawyers and parties have experienced the benefits of remote depositions. It has proven both convenient and cost effective. We do not expect the trend in growth to wane any time soon. If anything, we could be witnessing a completely new shift in how the legal system communicates.
A hastily-developed app and combined with a lack of user testing caused a ruckus in Iowa Caucus voting this week. What’s in store for New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, and beyond?
It has been an exciting week in US politics. We had a State of the Union address and an impeachment vote. A whirlwind week by any standard! Before we could even get to those two events, we started the week with an outrageous technology failure in the Iowa Democratic Caucus. For purposes of this blog post, I’m not going into the differences between a caucus and a primary. Let’s just assume they accomplish the same result: selecting a candidate for political office.
For the Iowa Democratic Party, Monday night was a disaster and then it continued into Tuesday, Wednesday… you get the idea. As I write this blog post on Friday morning, I’m not even sure if they have an official determination of who won. The news stories seem to be conflicting.
So here is what we know about the app (IowaRecorder) failure based on available reports. The Iowa Democratic Party hired a marketing technology company to build an app which would be used, statewide, to report results of local caucus votes (I’m simplifying for purposes of brevity). The app was going to be used to submit voting results. Nobody was actually voting through the app.
This first really good article I read that outlined the technology implementation failure, came from Slate. Here was a good summary from a couple of days ago:
“It’s still unclear what exactly went wrong with the app, but all of these issues appear to have something in common: The Iowa Democratic Party clearly wasn’t prepared for any possible issues with the app and a more involved method of vote reporting introduced this year—and sure enough, it reportedly turns out that the app was never tested on a statewide scale. Shadow, which is run by alumni of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns as well as Google, was paid $60,000 to develop the app, but it had just two months after party officials decided to abandon plans to report results over the phone.”
There’s some updated information on the failure from Motherboard, which was released yesterday (along with the app code). Below, you’ll see that they released an app that was still in beta format:
“And Instead of going through proper app store review processes conducted by Apple and Google, Shadow used beta testing platforms like Apple’s TestFlight to distribute the software so it could meet the Monday deadline. So when it came time for the app to do its most critical role — letting Democratic precinct leaders report results from Iowa on Monday — it failed in every way imaginable.”
As I do when these major stories break, I turn to Experts.com members to get insights. You may recall Dr. Stephen Castell. Dr. Castell, Chartered Information Systems Practitioner and Member of the Expert Witness Institute, is Chairman of CASTELL Consulting. He is an internationally acknowledged Independent Computer Expert who has been involved in a wide range of computer litigation over many years.
Below, please find my questions and Dr. Castell’s answers (Disclaimer: these questions and answers provided on February 5th, 2020):
Nick: From available reporting, it appears the Iowa Democratic Party failed to do a statewide testing of this vote reporting application. What type of tests would have been necessary to identify errors in the system before statewide roll-out?
Dr. Castell: As other ICT professionals comment in the reports, there should be thorough systems testing and QA procedures, including User Acceptance Testing and Pilot Trials, plus scaled-up ‘soak testing’, before contemplating any real-world launch, such as this statewide roll-out. You expect to get errors in systems testing – its main purpose is to identify faults and fix them. Sadly, software systems and Apps these days do seem often to be launched publicly without adequate systems testing, let alone with adequate prior User Testing and Pilot Trials. If such standard professional QA processes were omitted, or truncated, for something as high-profile and important as an App to collect and relay voter data in the Iowa Caucus, that does appear rather astonishing.
Nick: It doesn’t appear that all of the fault lies with the app developer. It seems the Iowa Democratic Party only gave the app developer 2 months to develop and deploy this application. What sort of time-frame would you anticipate to develop, test, and implement a software of this scale?
Dr. Castell: That is difficult to estimate without more knowledge of the actual detailed Customer Requirements Specification that the developer’s App was contracted to meet. On the face of it, an App simply to in-gather voting data, aggregate and transfer it, sounds in principle like fairly straightforward functionality to code, test (at scale) and implement, and 2 months may not have been an unrealistic timescale for development, testing and deployment.
Nick: Would you expect there to be a certain level of user sophistication for those using the app on this scale? Should there have been company representatives available at caucus sites?
Dr. Castell: Reports suggest that there was little prior familiarity, let alone ‘training’, or ‘user sophistication’, with the App on the part of those expected to employ it for real, in the high-pressure, real-time Iowa Caucus conditions. Whatever the state of compliance of the App with its contractual specification – perhaps reasonably well delivered to time, budget, specification, and of suitable quality, ‘fit for purpose’ – if there was no program for adequate user familiarity and training, plus some sort of support and trouble-shooting team from the developer company at caucus sites, that alone could account for the problems encountered in statewide roll-out operation.
Nick: From what I’ve read, it looks like the company was paid $60,000 to build this application. Is there any way to gauge whether this is too little or too much for this type of application development?
Dr. Castell: Again, that is difficult to gauge without more knowledge of the actual detailed Customer Requirements Specification, and thus the likely complexity of the functionality needed, and its associated software design and coding; also, there may have been a tight budget to which the developer company was obliged to work. It is not unusual for software developers to invest in a ‘plum’ assignment such as this high-profile Iowa Caucus project, for the promotional and marketing impact that gives them in securing hopefully more lucrative and profitable development jobs later. In this case, the $60,000 could have been much less than the true cost to the developer company of the analyst, designer, coder, tester, deployer and trainer man-days expended in building and launching the App with a statewide roll-out, against a tough deadline.
Nick: What sort of testing, trials, and quality assurance requirements would you have employed prior to such an implementation?
Dr. Castell: There should ideally have been thorough systems testing and QA procedures, including User Acceptance Testing and Pilot Trials, plus scaled-up ‘soak testing’, well understood by ICT professionals, before the real-world launch of this statewide roll-out. Relevantly, I teach a Course Avoiding IT Disasters – the Expert Way, the principles of which are also covered in my seminal paper “Forensic Systems Analysis: A Methodology for Assessment and Avoidance of IT Disasters and Disputes”, issued as a Cutter Consortium Executive Report, Enterprise Risk Management & Governance Advisory Service series (Vol. 3, No. 2, March 8, 2006).
We cannot say that New Hampshire is next. All available information tells us that New Hampshire is not using the same company/app used in the Iowa Caucuses. Furthermore, there was talk of Nevada using the app, but they have claimed they will not move forward with the application.
That’s the end of this particular blog post. Though, we’re already in talks about another post related to voting systems.
Recently, we have received some questions from expert witnesses regarding potential liability for expert witness testimony. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decided this issue last Friday.
Last week, on October 26th, 2018, the United States, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal common law “witness litigation privilege” protects an expert witness for civil claims stemming from their testimony.
The matter involved a coal miner who was claiming benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. According to the expert witness the evidence did not support the plaintiff’s claim and the claim was denied. Thereafter, a report from the Center for Public Integrity alleged the “Johns Hopkins radiology unit and its expert witnesses were much less likely to find evidence of black lung disease than other doctors.”
The report from the Center for Public Integrity led to a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins and their doctors claiming liability for fraud, tortious interference, misrepresentation and more. The trial court dismissed the claim citing the federal common law “witness litigation privilege.” According to Gravel2Gavel, the appeals court was divided on the issue, but agreed with the trial court decision.
The Fourth Circuit stated “absolute immunity” applies to the expert witness testimony. They went further to state, “‘when a witness takes the oath, submitting his own testimony to cross-examination, the common law does not allow his participation to be deterred or undermined by subsequent collateral actions for damages.’” This is a really wordy way for the court to say an expert witness cannot later be sued for their testimony.
We also went ahead and summarized the ruling in this video:
Hurricane Florence has rapidly expanded in Category 4 hurricane, with a strike expected to make landfall on Thursday. How can those in the path of the storm prepare?
If you’re like me, you are always a little skeptical of meteorological reporting. With that said, I live in California and have never experienced truly catastrophic weather, so I’m not a good “barometer” for the appropriate response. I would likely be the person on top of my house because I didn’t listen to the warnings — and, for that, I apologize in advance to search and rescue for my foolishness.
Do not let that happen to you!
The 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season is upon us. According to several reports, there are a few hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic Ocean. The one to be aware of at this moment, is Hurricane Florence. The Weather Channel has excellent coverage for those who may be in the path of the storm.
As of this writing, The Weather Channel is advising citizens to Prepare Now: Florence Explodes from Cat. 2 to Cat. 4 in Just Hours. This post did not mince words. It warns that as of today, Florence is massive and dangerous, stating “Hurricane Florence has rapidly intensified into a Category 4 major hurricane southeast of Bermuda and is likely to lash the East Coast later this week with life-threatening storm surge, destructive winds and massive inland rainfall flooding in one of the strongest strikes on this part of the East Coast on record.”
It is true, that this may change and the storm may turn and remain at sea. From everything I read this morning, now is the time to prepare and anticipate Florence making landfall, rather than count on it remaining at sea.
As we have done before, I have contacted Experts.com members and asked them for some preparation input for those facing the storm. Forgive the brevity of some of these answers, but both of these members are on the East Coast and busy preparing for the impending hurricane.
General Contractor & Construction Expert Witness – John Minor
John G. Minor, President of Complete General Contractors, is a third-generation Contractor and licensed instructor certified by the North Carolina Department of Insurance. He is a recognized expert on the costs and applications necessary to repair buildings damaged by manufacturer, builder liability, water damage or intrusion, mold, or asbestos. Mr. Minor will be on the ground with the University of Florida Hurricane Research team. You can learn more about his practice at teamcomplete.com.
My questions to Mr. Minor were as follows:
Nick: What steps should property owners take to prepare for the landfall of Hurricane Florence?
Mr. Minor: Understand that if they choose to shelter in place they must have a strong residence or shelter that will not flood. Sage advice is to hide from the wind run from the flood.
Mr. Minor: Wind and flood damage from this storm. As a strong cat 3 or easy 4, residential shingle damage (see Saffir–Simpson scale). If the storm lingers and pulls Atlantic waters into the Carolinas, major flooding for the Tar and Cape Fear Rivers in an already swollen river system. Know your floodplain.
Nick: Is there anything homeowner’s can do to limit property damage from wind, rains, storm surge?
Mr. Minor: Remove potential projectiles and board up your home. Understand safe generator use.
Nick: Are there any preparations one should take that will benefit them in the case of a future insurance claim? For example, should a homeowner take pictures or video before leaving their home?
Mr. Minor: Document roof interior, exterior, and contents, including contents in an off site storage, with pictures and video.
Nick: What are your top recommendations to help property owners prepare for a hurricane?
Mr. Minor: TADD (Turn Around, Don’t Drown). There will be a lot of desire to move around the area after the storm. Flooding is a dangerous thing.
I had to look up the TADD acronym submitted by Mr. Minor. Take a look at this video from the NOAA and National Weather Service.
Meteorology & Weather Expert Witness – Michael Mogil
H. Michael Mogil is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist (M.S. Meteorology) with over 40 years of experience, nearly 30 of them with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In addition to working for the National Weather Service as a forecaster, researcher, and severe storm program manager, he also provided satellite training to many governmental agencies and hundreds of TV meteorologists. To learn more about his practice visit: weatherworks.com.
Here are the questions and answers from our meteorology expert:
Nick: Today’s reports putting Hurricane Florence at a Category 4, what type of weather should be expected if it makes landfall as a Category 4 hurricane?
Mr. Mogil: Based on coastal angle of attack, huge storm surge and water push ashore to the north of the storm’s track. To the south of the storm, with winds coming from land to water, water levels will actually drop.
Obviously, heavy to excessive rainfall in advance of landfall, with rain continuing across large parts of the Carolinas and southern Virginia at least through Sunday night (and likely into early next week).
Nick: In your experience, what are the most common types of property damage experienced with a Category 4 hurricane?
Mr. Mogil: From winds, depending upon the type and quality of construction, anything from the loss of many roof tiles or shingles to the actual loss of the roof. Poorly constructed building will be damaged the most. Windows or patio doors, not boarded up, could easily be damaged by flying debris or suffer water intrusion as water is pushed under tracks.
From flying debris (of any type), window or building damage.
Falling trees (due to wind and water-logged soil) a high probability.
Nick: For those in the path of the storm, what do you recommend they do to prepare for the potential landfall?
Mr. Mogil: Listen to instructions of local officials. If one lives near the coast in storm surge inundation area, LEAVE!!!!!!!!! (yes, all those exclamation marks). If one lives in a mobile home or other weakly constructed structure, LEAVE!!!!!!! (more exclamation marks).
Nick: Some reports have indicated the storm may turn and remain at sea as it climbs up the East Coast. Should a citizen still be prepared to evacuate?
Mr. Mogil: Yes, those reports, as of now, are not correct. National Hurricane Center forecasts are the ones to follow. Reliable media sources will convey the NHC forecasts.
Nick: From a meteorological perspective, is there anything you think the public must know as the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season heats up?
Mr. Mogil: Today (9/10) is peak day of the season. There are 3 Atlantic storms right now, and only one seems likely to strike the U.S. Treat each storm as its own entity.
Nick: Please feel free to share anything additional that is not covered by the questions…
Mr. Mogil: I’d also say that if people do leave, package important papers (insurance policies, birth certificates, passports) in sealable plastic bags (Glad, Ziplock) and take these as they evacuate or go to shelter.
Charge appliances (cell phones, etc) and get gas before leaving.
Let loved ones in other places know what you are doing.
After the storm, deal with insurance quickly…get an attorney (and have the attorney get one or more experts onboard, if a lawsuit or mediation seems necessary).
There you go! Listen to the experts. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Be safe!
Last week, the New York Times reported CDC estimates of 72,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States, in 2017. Unfortunately, a record breaking number, beating the number of deaths caused by guns, HIV, or car accidents.
Well, I wish the last time I wrote about the opioid crisis could have been the final time. It appears we are far from the end of this crisis. In fact, I began writing about this topic because it will go on for years and the litigation surrounding pharmaceutical opioids is just beginning.
Normally, I am not one to follow entertainment news. In fact, I view it is a distraction from far more important topics. Yet there I sat, just a few weeks ago, reading about the overdose of pop singer Demi Lovato. She has struggled with addiction from a young age and recently experienced a heroin induced overdose. Then last week the CDC released preliminary estimates of approximately 72,000 deaths caused by opioid overdoses, in 2017. This is a horrific plight on our nation. Chances are we all know someone impacted by this epidemic.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Experts.com has seen an incredible increase in the number of addiction medicine, substance abuse, and pain management experts marketing their services with us over the years. I started in 2010 and I’ve witnessed at least a five-fold increase in these types of experts.
The litigation against major pharmaceutical companies has also skyrocketed. In the last year we’ve seen cities, states, and counties bringing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The litigation against the manufacturers and distributors is encouraging if it helps stem the flow of opioid overdoses and death.
Based on this article in the New York Times, there are two reasons for the increase in opioid-related deaths: “A growing number of Americans are using opioids, and drugs are becoming more deadly. It is the second factor that most likely explains the bulk of the increased number of overdoses last year.” The article goes on to explain synthetic opioids, such as Fentanyl, is a major contributing factor to the rise in overdoses. The Times further elaborates:
“Strong synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its analogues have become mixed into black-market supplies of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and the class of anti-anxiety medicines known as benzodiazepines. Unlike heroin, which is derived from poppy plants, fentanyl can be manufactured in a laboratory, and it is often easier to transport because it is more concentrated. Unexpected combinations of those drugs can overwhelm even experienced drug users. In some places, the type of synthetic drugs mixed into heroin changes often, increasing the risk for users…”
High profile news stories followed by the shocking statistics from the CDC compelled me to reach out for insights from those on the front lines. Those who are treating patients with legitimate and often chronic pain, while also addressing substance abuse disorders. Dr. Adam Carinci is one such professional.
Addiction and Pain Management Expert Witness – Dr. Adam Carinci
Dr. Adam J Carinci, M.D. is a nationally recognized clinician, speaker and expert witness with over a decade of pain medicine experience. He is double-board certified in both anesthesiology and in pain medicine and maintains an active, full-time medical practice. Dr. Carinci is Chief of the Pain Management Division and Director of the Pain Treatment Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center and an Associate Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.
As with previous articles, I posed a series of questions to Dr. Carinci and asked for his insights. Below are my questions and his answers.
Nick: For our readers, can you explain what constitutes a synthetic opioid?
Dr. Carinci: Synthetic opioids are man-made drugs that mimic the effects of natural opioids such as opium or heroin. Synthetic opioids act at the same opioid receptor in the body as naturally occurring opioids to induce pain relief, sedation and respiratory depression among other effects. Synthetic opioids are many times as potent as naturally occurring opioids. For example, Fentanyl is 100 times as potent as morphine (derived from opium).
Nick: Fentanyl is one of the synthetic opioids I’ve read about more in recent years. It’s mixture with heroin seems to be responsible for the increased deaths according to the New York Times. What are some legitimate medical uses for Fentanyl?
Dr. Carinci: The synthetic opioid agonist fentanyl is approximately 100 times as potent as morphine and is characterized by a rapid onset and short duration of action after a single dose. It is most commonly administered intravenously but may be given intramuscularly, transmucosally or transdermally. Fentanyl’s high lipid solubility contributes to its rapid onset because it readily crosses the blood–brain barrier. Fentanyl is used medically as a component of general anesthesia for surgery, as a sedative for procedural sedation and for chronic pain management.
Nick: Is there any data on how addiction begins?
Dr. Carinci: Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences. Addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder. It is a susceptibility that is a confluence of a person’s genetics, neurobiology, psychological and social factors. Activity substances increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the molecular messenger of the brain’s reward center. It is what gives people the feeling of pleasure and reinforces behaviors critical for survival, such as eating, drinking and having sex. Different drugs tap into the dopamine reward system in different ways, some more potent generators of dopamine than others. There are a variety of factors that determine how addictive a drug can be, however, how rapidly each drug can get into the brain, and how powerfully it activates neural reward circuits are two critical factors. Thus, the combination of the person’s susceptibility and the potency of the drug combine to create addiction.
Nick: In your experience, what factors have led to the “opioid crisis” as we know it today? I realize this is very general, so a summary will suffice.
Dr. Carinci: The current opioid crisis has its roots in the late 1990s, where the use of prescription opioid pain relievers began to be prescribed at much greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive. Opioid overdose rates began to increase. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. That same year, an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders. In 2016, synthetic opioids (primarily illegal fentanyl) passed prescription opioids as the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the United States. In 2016, over 42,000 drug overdose deaths involved opioids. Of those, 45.9% involved synthetic opioids.
Nick: What treatment options are available for opioid addiction?
Dr. Carinci: Medications, including buprenorphine (Suboxone®, Subutex®), methadone, and extended release naltrexone (Vivitrol®), are effective for the treatment of opioid use disorders. The most comprehensive approach should be combined medications with behavioral counseling known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). Studies have shown that MAT Increases social functioning and retention in treatment.
There will certainly be more to come in regards to this crisis. If there are any experts you’d like me to consult regarding this topic? Any other expertise you’d like covered? If so, please leave a comment and we will continue to cover this story, both from medical and litigation perspectives.
This November, West Virginians deployed overseas will have the opportunity to vote via smart phone through a Blockchain-based application. Given the existing concerns of election integrity, I couldn’t help but reach out for expert analysis.
Hey, did you know that election integrity is kind of big deal? Have you been watching any number of news stations in the last few years? Our country has not stopped talking about election meddling, voter fraud, electronic voting, and wide variety of related topics, for two or more years, give or take.
If you are not aware of these concerns, you must be living under a rock. Please make room under the rock as I’d like to join you. I do my best to ignore the talking heads because I’ve found they add no value to my life (anyone else feel that way about the twenty-four hour television news cycle?).
Before I digress entirely, my point is election integrity and vote verification are legitimate concerns and imperative for the success of our democracy. As such, broadcast news covers the subject extensively.
Rarely, however, do these broadcasters address the micro-issues. This is why I choose to get my news from a variety of different publications, most of which I read online. That’s how I found this article: Experts Criticize West Virginia’s Plan for Smartphone Voting, from Ars Technica. Many of my regular readers know I appreciate the legal and policy analysis from Ars Technica. Routinely, I use it as a jumping off point for further research. The publication often acts as a catalyst for blog posts. In this case, I’d been waiting for the opportunity to discuss the Blockchain topic and get insights from expert witnesses on the subject.
The issue of a Blockchain-based application being used, to allow soldiers stationed abroad, the opportunity to vote through their smart phone was the perfect topic. Bitcoin (a Blockchain-based crytocurrency) is already being written and discussed extensively. Voting, through a Blockchain application, is getting less coverage and is therefore more interesting to me.
Much of what I’ve read about the Blockchain is hyperbolic. I’ve read on more than one occasion that “the Blockchain cannot be hacked.” On its face, that statement appears illegitimate. There is no such thing as 100% secure. So, how do we plan on safely using a smart phone app to conduct one of our country’s most sensitive civic processes?
According to the Ars Technica article, West Virginia did a limited run of the system (Voatz is the name of the app) for the primary election in May. The article further provided, “West Virginia’s secretary of state told CNN that the pilot worked well and that the system passed four audits of various parts of the system. So this November, the state is planning to offer the system more broadly to West Virginians deployed overseas.”
Naturally, I have a lot of questions about the security and reliability of the voting application offered by Voatz. So I reached out to one of our computer science experts who has studied the Blockchain and recently published articles on the topic.
Computer Science and Systems Expert Witness – Dr. Stephen Castell
Dr. Stephen Castell is a computer science and systems expert witness with over 30 years of experience. As an expert witness, Dr. Castell has acted in over 100 major cases including the largest and longest computer software actions to have come to trial in the English High Court. Most recently, Dr. Castell contributed to the 200th issue of Computer Law and Security Review (CLSR), with his paper titled, “The Future Decisions of RoboJudge HHJ Arthur Ian Blockchain: Dread, Delight or Derision?” Find out more about Dr. Castell by visiting his website: www.castellconsulting.com.
I’ve been working with Dr. Castell for more than eight years. We always have delightful conversations and “geek out” together over emerging technologies. Our recent conversations have, of course, covered the rapidly changing legal technology space.
Here are the questions I posed and the answers provided by Dr. Castell:
Nick: Can you describe Blockchain technology for the lay reader?
Dr. Castell: In its elemental form, a Blockchain is simply a decentralized database system – digital ledgers that store transaction data, distributed across many nodes. It has a linked list data structure, with each block (an aggregated set of data) containing a ‘hash’ of the previous block. Each block is formed by a ‘proof-of-work algorithm’, through which consensus of this distributed system is obtained via the longest possible chain. A ‘traded’ cryptocurrency Blockchain (e.g. Bitcoin) is a shared public chain: in principle everyone has access to the chain, not only to read the information on the chain, but also to append new blocks on the chain. This is known as an unpermissioned chain. The West Virginia voting application is likely to be a permissioned chain, where, through public key cryptography, access control can be implemented during setting up of the chain so that differentiated access can apply – both voters and those managing and controlling the voting process can differentially record, and/or interrogate, votes and voting data added to its Blockchain.
Nick: Is a Blockchain-based voting system secure?
Dr. Castell: The Blockchain in and of itself provides strong cryptographic security. However, ICT expert professionals bear in mind that not only are there no finalised international standards for Blockchain (eight standards are in development under ISO/TC 307), but also there is far more to specifying, designing, developing, testing, deploying and maintaining an appropriate complete QA’d application than just the Blockchain element. The security of the complete system needs to be addressed and designed-in from the start, irrespective of the use case for the Blockchain. And whether to use a Blockchain as a component at all for a given business requirement such as public elections is a critical initial feasibility exercise that the expert knows is essential, as much from a security perspective as any other.
Nick: We know that electronic voting systems are vulnerable to hacking. Can Blockchain-based voting systems also be hacked?
Dr. Castell: Anything can be hacked, and electronic voting systems are no different. Back in the late 1980s, I carried out a major definitive study, commissioned by the British H M Treasury, on the admissibility of computer evidence in court and the legal reliability/security of IT systems (The APPEAL Report, 1990, May, Eclipse Publications, ISBN 1-870771-03-6). This concluded with what became known as my ‘First Dictum’: “You cannot secure an ontologically unreliable technology by use of an ontologically unreliable technology”. Nothing has changed. Commercial computer hardware and operating systems, including smartphones, remain essentially ‘open’, and ontologically unreliable.
Nick: Is it the Blockchain that could be compromised or is it more likely a voter’s smartphone would be compromised by a hacker?
Dr. Castell: A well-engineered and implemented Blockchain distributed voting ledger should itself be as immune to compromise as its cryptography can provide. But the voter’s smart phone security, and the overall voting application, are only as sound as whatever has been designed-in to the whole system – and we know that smartphones have for sure in the past been hacked. It is not clear that the proposed West Virginia smartphone application would be any more (or less) hackable than anything else hitherto.
Nick: What sort of checks and balances would you expect for a Blockchain-based voting system before implementation?
Dr. Castell: It would seem an obvious (constitutional?) requirement that votes must always be manually-countable in any US election, in the event of suspected error or lack of trust in the reported result, whether through suspected deliberate tampering or compromise, accident or incident, random system malfunction, or whatever else, and particularly if the result is legally challenged in court. Any smart phone app voting system must therefore always be designed so that its operation, and the voting data recorded, are auditable for integrity, accuracy and reliability ‘by hand’ – that is surely the most basic check and balance.
Lawyer Jonathan Bolls is a Magistrate, and Chief Election Officer, in Fairfax County, Virginia, who had personal experience of the consequences of unreliable computer systems, as a past victim of technical problems saving Bar Exam essays using suspect software provided by the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners (I provided expert opinion on his behalf – see http://jonathanbolls.blogspot.com/). He notes that US citizens are passionate about the integrity of elections: “For Blockchain technology, where someone is voting on their phone from overseas, they would want to consider that in doing so they potentially waive their rights to have their vote counted should a re-count be necessary. We have actually gone the other way: removed our high-tech touchscreen voting systems and returned to the paper ballot. If ever we need to check voting numbers we hand count”.
Aside from manual auditability, before implementation it is vital that ‘Proof of Concept’ projects be thoroughly executed, carefully trialing any proposed smartphone public voting system, prior to actual ‘go live’ for real. Such Pilot Trials or Proving Systems are essential, with their scale, planning, operation, data and results, and assessment thereof, monitored and carried out by independent experts.
Nick: In your expert opinion, would you trust a Blockchain-based voting system to accurately register votes?
Dr. Castell: Deliberate hacking or compromise apart, there is no reason why a well-engineered and implemented Blockchain-based voting system, with careful professional expert involvement in its design and trialing before go-live, should not accurately register votes. However, I do not consider that a so-called ‘trustless’ Blockchain-based voting system removes the need for a Trusted Third Party legally responsible for its operation and security. ‘Who you gonna sue when it goes wrong?’ is still an essential consideration, and the Blockchain itself, nothing magical, ‘just another computer system’, cannot be sued.
https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1XSpq_654J6Hkp ‘The future decisions of RoboJudge HHJ Arthur Ian Blockchain: Dread, delight or derision?’, Stephen Castell, Computer Law & Security Review, Volume 34, Issue 4, August 2018, Pages 739-753.
Commission of the European Community. Green paper on the security of information systems, ver. 4.2.1, 1994.
S. Castell, Code of practice and management guidelines for trusted third party services, INFOSEC Project Report S2101/02, 1993.
What are your thoughts? Would you trust a smart phone, Blockchain-based voting application? Please share your comments below!
Our friends over at the Robinette Legal Group, located in Morgantown, West Virginia, wrote a complementary piece to this blog. The author of the piece, Terri Robinette, did an exceptional job elaborating on prior “uses” of Blockchain in Sierra Leone and describing how West Virginia is legitimately the first to truly test this technology. She further described election security and fraud in West Virginia. Take a look at her article below:
With wildfires raging across California, smoke, pollutants and allergens are filling our skies. Impacting not only those in the immediate vicinity of fires, but people throughout the state.
As many of our friends, colleagues, and readers are aware, the Experts.com corporate office is situated in Stockton, California. We are in the heart of the Central Valley and a safe distance from the roaring wildfires. However, we are surrounded by these fires and the airborne pollutants they are emitting.
The Mendocino Complex Fire (now determined to be the largest wildfire in California history) is occurring approximately 200 miles to the Northwest of our office. Those westerly winds, however, are blowing the smoke directly through the Central Valley.
The valley is known for terrible allergens, due in large part, to our amazing agricultural industry (responsible for producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 33-50% of the nation’s produce, depending on your data source). What we have been experiencing in the last couple of weeks is, for lack of a better phrase, a perfect storm of allergens and pollutants.
Stockton, and the Central Valley, are not alone. Smoke from the 19 (at the time of this writing) active wildfires in the state, are contributing to all kinds of allergy, respiratory distress and illness for Californians. As smoke does not recognize border lines, the smoke is impacting people across the West.
Here is what I know from personal experience. Children and older adults are most at risk from the airborne pollutants and allergies. Outdoor activities for these individuals should be minimal. The same goes for pets. Those afflicted with allergies or compromised respiratory systems should also minimize outdoor activity. You should also check your air quality daily. If you’re in California, here’s where to check: www.airnow.gov.
Here is a quick look of the haze around our office. Skies are normally bright blue.
Here is the sun trying to peak through the smoke. This is an improvement over yesterday.
Beyond the above, I cannot tell you much more. I have been choosing to limit my outdoor activity and that of my dog because she has significant allergies and respiratory health problems. She’s also elderly. To better elaborate on fire related exposures, including allergies and respiratory impacts, I have reached out to one of our expert witnesses.
Allergy, Immunology and Dermatology Expert Witness – Dr. Ernest Charlesworth
Ernest N. Charlesworth, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, the American Board of Internal Medicine, American Board of Allergy & Immunology, and the American Board of Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology. He has over 40 years of experience in his field of expertise. He is one of only a few United States physicians who is board certified in both Allergy / Immunology and Dermatology.
Dr. Charlesworth specializes in respiratory diseases, Asthma, immunologic and allergic disorders, Allergic Pulmonary Disease, and more. He is located in Bronte, Texas. You can learn more about his expertise here. Below are my questions and Dr. Charlesworth’s answers.
Nick: What are the most common smoke-related allergic reactions?
Dr. Charlesworth: Smoke is a pulmonary irritant, even to healthy lungs, but for individuals with allergic asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it has the potential to be life-threatening. Not only is the smoke an irritant, it may also contain allergic particles ranging from the oil in poison ivy (& poison sumac) to grass, weed, & tree pollen. The inflammation induced by smoke and pollutants release a cascade of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. These cytokines augment and intensity of the allergic response.
Nick: Do allergy medications help at all when dealing with fire/smoke related exposure?
Dr. Charlesworth: Yes, individuals with inhalant allergies & asthma they will experience an increased need for using their “rescue” inhalers. The rescue inhaler contains a bronchodilator (usually albuterol) that helps to relax the smooth muscle that surround the bronchi, thus allowing an increase in the ease of air flow in the lungs. It is equally important that those with allergic asthma use their “control” medication which usually contain an anti-inflammatory steroid. One of the problems with smoke inhalation is that it increases the inflammation in an already inflamed & irritable airway. This additional inflammation has the potential to push even a well controlled asthmatic patient over the edge and require urgent intervention in the setting of a hospital emergency department.
Nick: Personally, I fight allergies all year, but with the smoke-filled air, they seem to be worse. Is that just a result of greater airborne pollutants?
Dr. Charlesworth: The simple answer is, yes. The irritants in environmental smoke “prime” the lungs & mucous membranes resulting in an exaggerated response to their allergies.
Nick: For those with respiratory illnesses, who are in smoky areas of California, what can they do to limit further damage to their compromised systems?
Dr. Charlesworth: The first step is to recognize that they are at much greater risk than the non-allergic population. This includes having an action plan that stresses regular use of their prescribed allergy medications. It’s also important to recognize the control inhalers should not be used for immediate relief. Finally, lungs require moisture & humidity to function in a healthy manner. Dry smoke-filled air will dehydrate the mucous membranes. Accordingly, the use of room humidifiers can be of immense help. In addition, they should have an evacuation plan, even in the absence of general evacuation orders. The use of filtration masks are recommended when outdoors and when indoors the air conditioning filters need to be changed.
Nick: Aside from staying indoors, what other items would you suggest for those currently exposed to California wildfire smoke?
Dr. Charlesworth: See above. A plan for early evacuation to outside the atmospheric area affected by the smoke & fire may be the most important. This might be a good time to take a vacation and visit family outside the affected area.
Nick: Please share any other information you think is appropriate for those exposed to smoke and other pollutants from wildfires…
Dr. Charlesworth: For those allergic to poison ivy, oak, & sumac there is a real danger that allergic oils aerosolized can cause not only respiratory but also an allergic contact dermatitis to exposed skin. For this reason, I would recommend long sleeves and staying indoors. If outside exposure is unavoidable, the use of a thin application of a petroleum cream (such as Vasoline) may be helpful. Lastly, one should remember that most antihistamines have a side effect of drying out the mucous membranes which will have a deleterious effect on those allergic individuals exposed to smoke. This particularly true for diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and less so with loratidine and cetirizine. There are also late complications that include an increased vulnerability to secondary infection of both the lungs and the sinuses. For protection of the sinuses, I recommend irrigation with dilute salt water a couple of times each day.
The last two blog posts have been entirely inspired by the events taking place in California. The goal is to provide some information beneficial to our sisters and brothers in the state.
UPDATED – 09/11/2020
California is facing a large series of wildfires yet again. However, it seems as though this year’s fires are not only record-breaking, but unique compared to past fires. Statistics from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) show that roughly 7,500 fires have ignited and close to 2,000,000 acres burned. Most California fires start naturally due to the state’s dry heat and drought problem. However, some of the fires from this year, specifically the incident in Santa Clara, started from a lightning surge. Although most of the fires have been contained, the damage done is quite serious. Known for being California’s oldest state park, and home to its extraordinary 250 ft. tall ancient redwood trees, Big Basin was a shocking casualty of the fires. To add, people were forced to evacuate their homes, breathe unhealthy air, and live under red and orange-hued skies, like a post-apocalyptic setting from a movie. Below is a picture of the sky right outside the Experts.com office building.
To minimize further wildfire risk, Cal Fire is implementing 35 fuel reduction projects. Some of these projects include vegetation clearing and the eradication of dead trees, somewhere in the area of 147 million since 2012. They are also monitoring weather reports in hopes of rainfall or in preparation for increased periods of drought. Since California is prone to droughts, fires are an issue that will take years to manage. Overall, the State of California has begun executing the necessary steps to ensure the survival of our beautiful natural parks, the fauna that reside therein, and the residents who live nearby.