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The Importance of an Expert Opinion

booksMany cases in Massachusetts rise and fall on the testimony of an expert who has been commissioned by either the Plaintiff or the Defendant to help prove (or defend) their position.  Often times an expert is most commonly used in either a medical malpractice or products liability case.  A medical expert (normally a physician or a nurse) is brought in to discuss the standard of care applicable in a given case and whether the potential Defendant met or failed to meet the standard.  In a products liability case, an expert is most likely retained to discuss the feasibility for an alternative design and whether the absence of such safe guards caused or contributed to an injured Plaintiff’s damages.

In a recent decision out of the Appeals Court in Massachusetts, Jessica Christian, a Plaintiff, brought suit against an anesthesiologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.   The Plaintiff, who received anesthetic care from the Defendant as part of her hysterectomy, claimed that she suffered from numbness in her hand and forearm after the surgery.  She consulted with a neurologist who causally related her injury to the anesthesia she received by the Defendant.  The Defendant filed a motion with the court claiming that there were no issues of material fact in dispute that rise to a triable level.  Put another way, the Defendant asked for the case to be dismissed based on the facts of the case.  The court looked at the information presented on both sides and ultimately dismissed the suit due to a failure of the Plaintiff to establish proof of negligence and causation.

Under the Massachusetts common-law of evidence, there are five foundational requirements for the admissibility of expert testimony. A party seeking to introduce expert testimony must show:

  1. the expert testimony will assist the trier of fact;
  2. the witness is qualified as an expert in the relevant area of inquiry;
  3. the expert’s opinion is based on facts or data of a type reasonably relied on by experts to form opinions in the relevant field;
  4. the process or theory underlying the opinion is reliable; and
  5. the process or theory is applied to the particular facts of the case in a reliable manner.

The court in the previously mentioned matter held that even though the Plaintiff presented an affidavit by an “expert” in an attempt to show proof of negligence and causation, the expert was not qualified to make such an assertion (prong number 2 above).  An expert is needed when a case is dealing with a subject matter which may beyond the common knowledge of a jury.  For an expert’s opinion to be admissible it must be shown that the expert possesses such special knowledge on the subject matter as to aid the jury.  “ ‘The crucial issue,’ in determining whether a witness is qualified to give an expert opinion, ‘is whether the witness has sufficient “education, training, experience and familiarity” with the subject matter of the testimony.’ ” McLaughlin v. Selectmen of Amherst, 422 Mass. 359 (1996).

In Christian v. Gulati, the Plaintiff failed to describe the background, education, experience, training, qualifications or other relevant experience of the purported expert.  As such, the affidavit carried no credible weight as to the applicable standard of care or causation.  Because the Plaintiff did not have the requisite proof, the judge granted summary judgment to the Defendant and dismissed the matter.

To read more on this case, please read Christian v. Gulati, which was decided on April 15, 2014  You can access this case on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ website by clicking here and searching for unpublished decisions.  If you have suffered a personal injury, our office can help you. Our office is familiar with the requirements of expert testimony and will make sure that your case can be heard on the merits.  To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.