Expert testimony is a critical element of medical negligence cases. The United States Supreme Court has charged trial judges with serving as “gatekeepers” who must screen out “speculative, unreliable expert testimony” before it even reaches a jury. But that does not mean judges enjoy unlimited discretion to decide which experts to admit. A federal appeals court in Atlanta recently chided a district judge for improperly excluding a plaintiff’s expert witness in a Georgia negligence case. The appeals court also rejected an attempt by the medical industry to dictate its own standards of expert witness reliability to the courts.
Adams v. Laboratory Corporation of America
The plaintiff in this case suffered from cervical cancer. She received several Pap smear tests, but the laboratory that analyzed the results failed to discover the cancer before it had spread to the plaintiff’s lymph nodes. The plaintiff then sued the laboratory for negligence.
The plaintiff presented an expert witness, Dr. Dorothy Rosenthal, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University who has more than 40 years experience in training and supervising laboratory technicians. Dr. Rosenthal reviewed the plaintiff’s original test results and concluded the lab “fell short of the applicable standard of care” in diagnosing the plaintiff.
The laboratory moved to exclude Dr. Rosenthal’s testimony. It argued her methodology was unreliable. The trial judge agreed and granted summary judgment to the laboratory.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court in an opinion issued on July 29th of this year. The appeals court said the trial judge’s conclusion regarding Dr. Rosenthal’s credibility was “manifestly erroneous.” The trial judge asserted Dr. Rosenthal’s methodology could not be replicated by other experts. The appeals court said just the opposite was true; indeed, the laboratory’s expert used the exact same methodology, albeit to reach a different conclusion.
The appeals court also rejected the trial judge’s view that Dr. Rosenthal’s methodology did not meet the guidelines proposed by the College of American Pathologists and the American Society of Cytopathology. These guidelines purport to advise courts on how to adjudicate negligence claims against its members. As the 11th Circuit noted, these guidelines have nothing to do with the a standard of care a patient receives; rather, they are “policy proposals to limit how the courts can find the members of the organizations liable for professional negligence when they are sued.” The 11th Circuit emphatically states private interest groups should not be allowed to set evidentiary standards.
Finally, the 11th Circuit said the trial judge could not exclude Dr. Rosenthal’s testimony simply because she might have a bias towards plaintiffs in negligence cases. While bias may be an issue, it is a question for a jury to weigh and decide. A trial judge must not usurp the jury’s legitimate fact-finding role in this respect.
One judge on the 11th Circuit panel, Emilio M. Garza, wrote separately to state he did not think Dr. Rosenthal’s “methodology” should play a role in this case. Judge Garza said neither Dr. Rosenthal nor the laboratory employed any clearly defined methodology, but instead “they simply drew upon their knowledge” in assessing the plaintiff’s Pap smears. As far as Judge Garza was concerned, that means Dr. Rosenthal’s testimony is admissible so long as she is competent, which the laboratory never disputed.