The Importance of Expert Testimony in Medical Negligence Claims
When you seek medical care for an injury or illness, you expect that, at a minimum, your condition won’t deteriorate or decline because of the carelessness of a doctor, nurse, or other medical personnel. Unfortunately, medical malpractice is far more common than you may think, with an estimated 20,000 medical negligence lawsuits filed every year across the United States.
If you suffer any type of injury or loss because of the carelessness of a medical professional, you have the right to seek full and fair compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit. Medical malpractice cases are based on allegations of negligence. To successfully litigate a claim based on negligence, you must first show that the defendant (the negligent medical worker and/or their employer) breached the standard of care.
In most personal injury cases, the standard of care is one of “reasonableness.” In a motor vehicle accident claim or a slip-and-fall lawsuit, for example, you must show that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would, given the circumstances. In medical malpractice cases, however, the standard of care is higher. That’s why medical experts can be critical to the success or failure of a medical negligence claim.
What Is the Standard of Care in a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?
Because medical professionals have extensive training and experience, and because patients reasonably rely on that specialized training and experience when seeking care, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are held to a higher standard. Though the precise language may vary slightly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the general standard required of medical professionals is “the level and type of care that a reasonably competent and skilled health care professional, with similar training and experience, would provide in the same medical community.”
In a personal injury lawsuit, the jury ultimately decides whether a defendant breached the standard of care. To make that determination, the jury must rely on the testimony of medical experts.
The Role of Medical Experts in a Medical Malpractice Case
In a medical malpractice claim, both sides typically present their own expert witnesses. In fact, in some states, laws have been enacted requiring that any person filing a medical malpractice claim hire an expert who has practiced in the same field of medicine (or a comparable field). Some states require that a sworn statement or affidavit from such an expert be filed simultaneously with the personal injury complaint. The role of the medical experts is two-fold:
- To establish the standard of care, and
- To provide evidence that the defendant either breached or met the standard of care.
To show that a doctor breached the standard of care, an expert might, for example, testify that the doctor failed to order proper tests and therefore made a misdiagnosis, or that the doctor made an error during surgery.
In certain situations, no expert testimony is necessary; for example, if a surgeon leaves a sponge or scalpel inside a patient during surgery, the error is considered so obvious that an expert is not needed in order to establish negligence.
With all experts, an essential component of the effectiveness of their testimony is credibility. For that reason, attorneys typically introduce substantial evidence to support the witness’s status as an expert, such as education, professional experience, and accolades the witness has received. In federal courts, the judge must determine the credibility of an expert witness. The rules vary from state to state, but most states allow the jury to make the determination of credibility, based on the weight of the evidence.