June 21st, 2019
Expert Witnesses and Medical Negligence Cases- Part 3
In my prior posts on this subject, I discussed how the law requires a citizen to get the permission of a doctor before suing one and how those laws begin the process of allowing doctors to control what facts a jury gets to hear. The next step in the case requires some explanation of what expert witnesses are and how they are supposed to be used in court cases.
As defined by the Federal Rules of Evidence and most state counterparts, an expert witness is simply “[a] witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” who “may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if . . . the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue
.” I’ve highlighted the last part of that because it is critically important in understanding the point I wish to make about the use of expert witnesses in malpractice cases. Expert witnesses were only ever meant to help the jury understand the evidence. They were only ever meant to help the jury determine a fact. That is, the jury receives all of the relevant facts and determines for itself what facts are important and uses those important facts to determine what happened. If expert witnesses can help the jury do that job, great. But that’s all it was ever supposed to be. The jury was the fact-finder and its members used their own judgment to determine what was important and what was not. If experts were used at all, it was only to help (assist) the jury with its job. They jury was the primary fact-finder. Experts were secondary helpers, at most.
Let’s take a look at what has happened in medical negligence cases. Are experts still playing the helper role they were designed to play or has their role expanded far beyond that?