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What Is the Role of a Medical Expert Winess in a Malpractice Case?

In a medical malpractice case, a medical expert may provide critical information before or during the trial. It is important for the person hiring the expert to have a clear understanding of the role of the medical expert and on laws that pertain to medical malpractice cases.

Certification of Merit

One way that an expert witness may assist in medical malpractice cases is by signing an affidavit that states that a claim is based on sound medical opinions. Some jurisdictions require this type of evaluation of the merits of a medical malpractice claim to occur before a person can bring forth a medical malpractice claim. Additionally, some jurisdictions conduct a pseudo-hearing in which the medical expert is asked questions by a lawyer to establish the reasons for the claim and the factual basis for it. Some states’ laws requires a medical profession in the same area of expertise as the defendant review the facts related to the claim and agree to testify during the case before the case can proceed.

Review Panels

Other jurisdictions use review panels that go over the potential medical expert testimony and other facts
of the case to determine whether or not a particular claim is meritorious and has the necessary proof to put before a jury. Without acceptance by this panel, the claim can go no further. A medical expert may be on the review panel or may explain the nature of the claim to get past this obstacle in malpractice cases. How such panels are used varies by jurisdiction. Some states require the review panel before or after the time that the claim is filed. Additionally, states vary as to whether the conclusions reached by the review panel is binding or nonbinding.

Medical Malpractice Principles

Medical malpractice is a claim that alleges that a healthcare provider was negligent in some manner during his or her contractual obligation to provide competent medical care to a patient. Due to this negligence, the patient suffered some harm. In order to establish a claim for medical malpractice, the patient has the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she and the doctor had a doctor-patient relationship, there was a standard of care expected under the circumstances, the doctor deviated from this standard of care, the patient suffered some harm and there is a causal connection between the doctor’s deviation from the standard of care and the damages the patient suffered.

Standards of Care

Many medical malpractice claims hinge on a medical expert explaining what the applicable standard of care was and how the defendant doctor deviated from this standard. The standard of care is the degree of care that a reasonably prudent doctor would have exercised under similar circumstances. This standard of care in medical malpractice cases is based on the ordinary, care, skill and diligence that a physician in good standing in the same type of locale and in the same specialty would have applied.

Deviation from Standard of Care

A medical expert may also be asked to evaluate the testimony provided by the defendant and other witnesses to determine how the physician deviated from the accepted standards. During this type of testimony, the medical expert is tasked with the responsibility of explaining complicated and technical subjects in a way that judges, lawyers and juries who do not have a medical background understand. There may be a number of different yet acceptable standards that could have been used under the circumstances. The expert witness may be asked about these possible alternatives during direct testimony or during cross-examination. Ultimately, the expert witness must explain how the physician’s conduct did or did not line up with the acceptable standard of care and whether or not his or her actions amounted to malpractice or a simple error that does not warrant recovery.

Qualifying the Expert

Expert witnesses are relied upon to establish the standards of care in the case. As such, they serve a critical role of putting the events in question into context. Due to this role, expert witnesses provide testimony that is much different than other witnesses who simply have personal knowledge of the events involved in the case. There are different rules of evidence related to the testimony of expert witnesses compared to those of lay witnesses. The expert witness provides an opinion that is within a reasonable degree of medical certainty about the events, the standard of care and the causal connection.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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