When a court case requires a professional opinion in a specialized subject, an expert witness may be used. An aviation expert witness is a professional who can provide testimony or important knowledge about a subject related to aviation, such as airplane manufacturing or engineering, protocol behavior for aviators, or the probable cause of a crash. An aviation expert witness is usually not a party to a lawsuit, but instead provides an objective professional opinion.
The key provision to being an aviation expert witness is a clear degree of expertise. A person must generally be recognized as a senior professional in his or her field; having a pilot's license for a year would not necessarily qualify a person to be an expert witness. Many expert witnesses have advanced university degrees and a long career history, often with recognition for superiority through awards and other honors. This is to ensure that the expert's opinion has a degree of credibility, an essential factor in proving or disproving a case.
Laws regarding expert witness use may vary from region to region. In some areas, both sides can hire expert witnesses and use them to further their claim on the case. In other regions, such as in the United Kingdom, expert witnesses are neutral parties that are not tied to either side of the case by a retainer fee. In either situation, it is vital that an aviation expert witness make an objective analysis and state the truth as he or she understands it; expert witnesses can be charged with perjury if it is discovered that they are lying to promote one side of the case for money. Being charged and found guilty of perjury can not only destroy a long history of credibility, but also land an aviation expert witness in jail.
There are many types of court cases in which an aviation expert witness may be useful. Anything to do with flying, airport management, or even business deals regarding airlines may require aviation expertise in courts. Often, an aviation expert is needed to give an opinion about how a plane crash occurred and what factors led to the accident. If an insurance company is refusing to pay out insurance because they believe a crash was due to owner negligence, for instance, an aviation witness might be called on to examine maintenance records and analyze the crash evidence.
Most aviation experts are paid by attorneys for their services. It is important to note that fees are almost never on a contingency basis, meaning that the expert is paid whether or not the case is successful. Hourly fees for analysis and testimony are not uncommon, however, and many aviation experts serve as witnesses as a means of increasing income.