Although personal injury lawsuits rooted in simple negligence can usually be proven by presenting the facts in a favorable light, claims that are more complicated may require the testimony of an expert witness to prevail. Since expert witnesses tend to receive greater regard from jurors, their qualifications and the validity of their research and hypotheses must be vetted by the trial court judge.
In North Carolina, this is done pursuant to Article 7, Rule 702 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. This rule states that if scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge is needed to assist a trier of fact in understanding the evidence or to help determine an issue of fact, witnesses qualified as “experts” by their skill, knowledge, training, experience, or education can testify in a civil injury lawsuit if:
- The testimony is rooted in sufficient facts or data;
- The testimony is produced by reliable principles and methods; and
- The witness has applied the methods and principles reliably to the facts of the case.
As far as what it takes to be an expert witness, the trial court makes this call based on these factors. If a witness is testifying in a medical malpractice lawsuit, he or she can’t be considered an expert unless they specialize in the same type of area as the individual against whom or on whose behalf the testimony is offered. Furthermore, that witness has to have prior experience treating similar patients.
In the recent case of Hall v. Flannery, an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the issue was whether an expert witness testifying on behalf of the defendant doctor had been properly vetted by the trial court under state civil rules. The answer was no. And since there was a significant chance this testimony affected the outcome of the trial (which was a verdict in favor of the defense), the Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded the medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit for a retrial.
According to court records, the patient was just five months old when she was dropped on her head and suffered a skull fracture. Although she survived, the fracture expanded over time, and a cyst formed in that area of her head. It wasn’t a cause for concern, however, until one day when she turned 17 and was struck in the head. The force of this impact caused her to suffer loss of consciousness and later dizziness and blurred vision.
Ultimately, a CT and MRI scan confirmed the extent of the fracture and cyst. Doctors decided she needed to undergo brain surgery. The defendant, a neurosurgeon, conducted the procedure. The surgery seemingly went well, and the patient was discharged from the hospital on the next day. However, three days later, she was found dead in her bed.
A forensic pathologist who conducted an autopsy determined the patient died from a seizure brought about by damage from the surgery.
The girl’s mother filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the neurosurgeon, alleging negligent post-operative care.
Prior to trial, the defendant named three expert witnesses who would testify on her behalf. One of those testified that the teen girl died not from a seizure brought on by surgery but instead from a heart condition. The plaintiff’s attorney immediately objected, arguing there was no foundation, no qualification, and nothing else that would suggest this particular expert had previously expressed this opinion with a reasonable degree of medical certainty. After reviewing a transcript of the deposition, the judge disagreed and allowed the testimony.
Jurors decided the case in favor of the defendant. But, on appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, finding the judge failed to consider the expert witness’ qualifications or methodology in making this assertion. These are critical evaluations under the Daubert standard, and the fact that they were overlooked, the court ruled, was a significant error.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Hall v. Flannery, Nov. 4, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:
Rogers v. Martin – Liability for Death of Party Guest, Nov. 8, 2016, Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog