Claremont McKenna’s Wei-Chin Hwang was part of a trial this summer that resulted in the largest jury-verdict amount ever to be awarded against the Southern California Gas Company. It came at the end of June 2014, when a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded more than $19.8 million to a young man who suffered second- and third-degree burns when the back house he was renting exploded.
In addition to being an associate professor in CMC’s psychology department, Hwang is a licensed clinical psychologist who has a private practice where he sees patients and does forensic consulting. He’s also an expert in understanding how culture influences mental health processes and treatment, which is the reason attorneys for the case enlisted him. “As a clinical psychology professor,” Hwang said, “I am better positioned to help the jury understand the potential prognosis of patients because of my ability to clinically treat and diagnose a client, as well as my understanding of the extant research evidence relevant to a case. ”
Hwang began treating Pengxuan “Dean” Diao in August 2013. According to a press release following the verdict, Diao, 26, was living in a converted garage in San Gabriel when a gas company employee opened a valve that filled the garage with gas. When Diao woke about two hours later and lit a cigarette, the garage exploded in flames. Diao caught on fire and was taken by ambulance to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center Burn Unit, for second- and third-degree burns to 20 percent of his body.
In addition to his physical injuries, requiring multiple surgeries, Diao also suffered a brain injury, leaving him with permanent, cognitive deficits.
Hwang had multiple roles in the trial–– as an expert witness, a clinical psychologist, a treatment provider, and someone who could talk about Diao’s coordination of care and future life planning.
Having professors who not only teach and conduct research, but also work with real clinical cases can be extremely beneficial.
“Students love it when professors talk about real cases, and how those cases intersect with what they are learning,” Hwang said. “For cases such as this one, they also learn about psychiatric illness and issues related to forensic psychology and expert testimony.
“It’s important for them to understand how the legal system works, and how people with mental health problems are treated,” Hwang said. “Both the prosecution and defense hire expert doctors to discuss factors they feel are relevant to the case. However, there can be a lot of bias and differences of opinion depending on the expert’s own morals, and which side they are retained by.”
Hwang says that for him, treating a client and providing an accurate, clinical picture–– embedded within research–– is the most accurate and valid way to assess a person's clinical issues and prognoses.
“Many experts provide opinions that are not grounded in research, which can undermine and minimize patient problems,” he said. “Some doctors also evaluate a client for an hour, and feel like that is sufficient to understand how that person might do in the future.
“I think you really have to get to know the client to understand their problems and provide a valid opinion,” he said. “My role is to help the jury understand the seriousness of mental illness, and how it can interact with co-morbid physical health problems.
“This is critical to formulating an accurate prognosis and developing an appropriate life care plan for patients,” Hwang says.