Narrowing the Scope of Medical Expert Qualifications and Testimony under the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence
As a general principle, the standard for qualification as an expert witness in Pennsylvania is a liberal one. Specifically, the test for qualifying as an expert is whether the expert has any reasonable pretension to specialized knowledge on the subject at issue, and the weight to be given to such testimony is for the trier of fact to determine. Nevertheless, trial judges are given wide discretion in determining whether a witness qualifies, or does not qualify, as an expert.
On November 19, 2014, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns rendered an opinion in Lee v. Bernard (PICS No. 14-1985) that significantly limits the scope of expert testimony that may be offered by a general practitioner in a personal injury action. This decision indicates that Pennsylvania trial court judges may be narrowing their view of what constitutes “reasonable pretension to specialized knowledge” for determining the necessary qualifications and scope of competency in order for a medical witness to testify as an expert at trial.
In the Lee case, the plaintiffs underwent laser spine surgery as a result of injuries allegedly sustained in an underlying motor vehicle accident. The plaintiffs sought to have their family doctor, Dr. Gregory Temple, testify that their laser spine surgeries were related to the accident and that the surgeries were reasonable and necessary treatment of the injuries sustained in the accident. At trial, the judge sustained defense counsel’s objection and precluded Dr. Temple’s testimony regarding the reasonableness, necessity and relatedness of the plaintiffs’ spine surgeries.
In the opinion in support of her decision, the judge rejected the plaintiffs’ broader argument that “all medical doctors are qualified to testify concerning medical subjects” as incorrectly expanding the scope of Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 702, which requires that a witness possess the necessary qualifications to provide expert testimony. Similarly, the judge rejected the plaintiffs’ narrower argument that Dr. Temple’s “experience as a general practitioner who deals with orthopedic injuries and makes recommendations to his patients” rendered him qualified to testify as to the reasonableness and necessity of plaintiffs’ laser spine surgeries.
Judge Shreeves-Johns cited the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s opinion in Dambacher v. Mallis, 485 A.2d 408 (Pa.Super. 1985) in finding that, while every doctor has general knowledge of the human body and may have expertise in overlapping areas, not every doctor is qualified to testify as to specialized areas of medicine. Absent evidence of specialized knowledge of the particular procedure or technique under investigation, a medical witness may not offer expert opinions as to the reasonableness, necessity and relatedness of that medical procedure or technique.
As a result, the judge found that, although Dr. Temple’s attendance at medical school doubtlessly familiarized him with the basic parameters of medicine, there was no evidence that he had any experience or training in the field of laser spine surgery to qualify him as an expert. Judge Shreeves-Johns also held that, “Dr. Temple’s practice as a family practitioner [is] a general practice, in that it [is] not limited to a specific branch of medicine, and as a general practitioner, Dr. Temple [is] not a specialist in any area of medicine.” As a result, the judge held that Dr. Temple was not qualified to testify as an expert as to the relatedness, reasonableness and necessity of the plaintiffs’ laser spine surgeries and that his testimony at trial was properly limited to his own treatment of the plaintiffs.
The Lee decision is significant because it indicates a shift toward a stricter construction of what constitutes a “reasonable pretention to specialized knowledge” for purposes of expert qualification under the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence. Judge Shreeves-Johns’ opinion makes clear that a medical witness should not be permitted to testify as an expert simply by virtue of their license or degree. Rather, a medical witness must demonstrate specialized knowledge or expertise with respect to the particular medical or surgical technique at issue in order to proffer an expert opinion.
The implications of this decision are significant for defense counsel seeking to preclude the testimony of a plaintiff’s medical expert at trial. It is significant because it stands for the principle that a family doctor is not a specialist in any area of medicine for purposes of qualifying as an expert under the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence. Thus, a family practitioner arguably may be precluded from offering any testimony or opinions with respect to anything outside the scope of his or her own treatment of the plaintiff at trial. In a broader sense, Lee is significant because it supports the argument for preclusion at trial of any medical witness who is not an expert in the particular medical treatment, technique or procedure at issue.
Although the full impact of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas’ decision in Lee remains to be seen, the decision indicates that it may be easier for defense counsel to challenge the qualifications and competency of a plaintiff’s medical expert. Whether a general practitioner or otherwise, one who is not an expert in the particular medical procedure or technique under investigation at trial should be challenged and/or objected to.
*Angeline is an associate in our Philadelphia, Pennsylvania office. She can be reached at 215.575.3575 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2015
Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. Copyright © 2015 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, all rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm.