In many ways, medical malpractice cases are like typical personal injury lawsuits. In others, they are very different. One of the key differences is the role of expert witnesses. In this post, we will discuss the role of expert witnesses in medical malpractice cases.
Negligence and professional negligence
Medical malpractice is a subcategory of personal injury law. Most personal injury law rests on the legal theory of negligence, which holds that one person owes a duty of care to others to avoid the risk of harming them. If they breach this duty, they have acted negligently. If the person is injured as a result, the injured can hold the negligent party liable for their damages. This theory underpins most lawsuits involving motor vehicle accidents, defective products, slip-and-falls and most other personal injury claims.
Where medical malpractice law diverges from these cases is in the extent of the duty of care. A driver must exercise reasonable care to avoid the risk of an accident. This means the driver must act as a reasonable driver would in the same or similar circumstances. Since medical care is a field that requires extensive training and knowledge, the duty of care is different. Medical care providers must provide care that is up to the standards of their profession.
When a patient claims that they were injured due to the medical negligence of their care provider, and the case goes to trial, who can say what a reasonable professional would have done under the same or similar circumstances? The judge isn’t a medical professional. If there’s a jury, most members of the jury probably are not medical professionals. In such a case, the patient needs to call an expert witness to testify about professional standards and give their informed opinion. The defense may call expert witnesses of its own.
Expert witness qualifications
Typically, the expert witnesses who testify in medical malpractice cases are doctors or other medical professionals. Many states have laws requiring them to be licensed professionals. New York does not. They may be retired professionals or others who are knowledgeable about the subject. In most cases, they review the records of the case and offer their opinions on how a reasonably well qualified person in their profession would have responded to a similar case.
These witnesses get something out of the process. They receive a fee for their time, and they may find the process educational and interesting.
However, they also risk something. Professionals who deliver erroneous testimony can be sanctioned by their licensing committees. In some cases, people have filed lawsuits against expert witnesses who they accuse of unfair or fraudulent testimony.
These witnesses are considered experts because they have experience in the medical field. Experience can also be important for the legal professionals representing the plaintiffs and defendants in the case. An experienced medical malpractice attorney may have an address book full of the contact information of knowledgeable, dependable and respected medical professionals who can serve as expert witnesses. They also know good ways to present highly technical medical information to a court, in order to best represent the interests of their clients.