Expert Witnesses Critical Element in Alabama Medical Malpractice Claim

Jan 11, 2014 - Medical Malpractice by

Anytime there is a claim of medical malpractice in Birmingham, one of the things your legal team will do is secure a knowledgeable and reliable witness who can testify as that the medical provider breached the applicable standard of care.
Alabama Rules of Evidence, Article VII, Rule 702, an expert witness is someone who, by experience, training, knowledge, skill or education, is able to testify as to a technical, scientific or other specialized information in a case. The testimony of these individuals, based upon scientific procedure, methodology, principle or theory, is allowable only if the testimony is founded upon a sufficient bedrock of data or facts, is the product of reliable methods and principals and those methods and principals have been reliably applied to the facts of the case.

In medical malpractice cases, the Alabama Medical Liability Act stipulates that only similarly situated health care providers can provide expert testimony in a medical malpractice case. The guidelines are rather technical, but essentially, if you are suing a medical doctor, you want to have another similarly-trained or experienced medical doctor who is willing to testify on your behalf.

To understand how critical expert witnesses are in these claims, we explore the case of Boyd v. Nunez, recently reviewed by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Initially, the trial judge in this medical malpractice case excluded the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert witness for technical reasons. This resulted in the defense filing a motion for a summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s case could not be proven without this element. The trial judge agreed and the judgment was granted in favor of the defendant.

Although that decision was upheld by the appellate court, it was later reversed by the state supreme court.

The case stemmed from major injuries sustained by the plaintiff after receiving treatment in a nursing home. According to court records, the plaintiff was a nursing home resident for about six months when he claims that malpractice by the doctor, as well as negligence by nursing home staffers, contributed to a serious infection that resulted in his leg needing to be amputated.

Claims against the nursing home and administrators were later settled, but the claim against the doctor went to court.

In the course of the discovery phase of the trial, the plaintiff selected an expert witness, another medical doctor. However, the defendant doctor wanted a more definitive statement of the factual basis for which the plaintiff doctor reached his conclusions. When this was not forthcoming, the defendant attorneys sought to depose the plaintiff’s doctor.

On the date of the designated deposition, however, the plaintiff’s doctor fell ill. The plaintiff requested a continuance, asserting that the doctor’s illness was unforeseen. The trial judge refused this request on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to satisfy all the requirements for the state’s rules on expert testimony. He concluded that the plaintiff doctor would not be allowed to testify. He subsequently granted the defense motion for a summary judgment.

In reviewing the case, the state supreme court found that the trial judge had applied the wrong rule to the case. The trial judge failed to analyze whether the sanction was appropriate based on his failure to produce the doctor for the deposition, as the court had ordered. The judge never engaged in that analysis, so the state supreme court reversed the ruling and remanded the case for further consideration.

Additional Resources:

Boyd v. Nunez, Jan. 9, 2014, Mississippi Supreme Court

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