Nearly every medical malpractice lawsuit that goes to trial hinges on testimony from expert witnesses. Lawyers call in these expert witnesses because they understand the complex medical knowledge surrounding the case. Expert witnesses explain the case so a judge or jury members, who likely do not have the same knowledge, can make a fair ruling.
If you’re considering a malpractice lawsuit, you should understand what expert witnesses contribute to your case. The blog post below answers common questions about the role these witnesses play in medical malpractice.
Do All Malpractice Cases Need Expert Witnesses?
No. Some instances of malpractice demonstrate a doctor’s negligence without much room for doubt or interpretation. For example, if a surgeon left medical equipment inside a patient, such as a sponge, the patient would almost certainly develop complications after surgery. In no instance should a doctor leave sponges inside a patient, so the negligence in this case is obvious.
Lawyers don’t have a hard time proving negligence in clear-cut cases like the example above. However, medical malpractice is rarely this straightforward. Malpractice cases usually involve more complicated errors, such as misdiagnosis or prescribing incorrect treatments. In trials for those cases, expert witnesses explain why a doctor’s care was not correct or appropriate for the patient.
In some states, malpractice cases cannot even begin without expert witnesses. These states usually require a written testimony from a qualified medical professional asserting that the case likely involves malpractice. Other states have panels of medical experts who review cases before the lawsuit proceeds.
What Elements Constitute an Expert’s Testimony?
Malpractice lawyers must prove that several situations existed to win a client’s case. Those elements include the following:
- A doctor-patient relationship existed.
- The doctor’s care was negligent in some way.
- The doctor’s negligence led to the patient’s injury or unnecessary medical complications.
The first element is simple to prove for most malpractice lawsuits, but the second and third elements usually require at least one expert witness.
To prove a doctor provided negligent service, lawyers ask expert witnesses about the standard of care. Standard of care refers to the widely accepted treatments most medical professionals would offer to patients in roughly equal circumstances.
For example, if two teens in Seattle break their right arms in the same place with the same kind of fracture, the doctors who treat them would almost certainly offer a similar treatment. That’s the standard of care. But treatment might be different for patients of different ages, patients with different medical histories, or even patients who live in different areas.
Because standard of care varies depending on circumstances, lawyers bring in expert witnesses to establish the standard of care for the case at hand. Then, lawyers compare the doctor’s diagnosis and treatment methods against the standard of care. Any discrepancies between the standard of care and the treatment the patient actually received could point to negligence.
Proving Negligence Led to Injury
Once lawyers have established negligence, they must demonstrate that the doctor’s negligence harmed the patient. Even if a doctor deviated from the standard of care, the doctor’s actions may not be the primary reason the patient suffered unnecessary injury or medical complications.
Expert witnesses help establish that the doctor’s negligence did cause the bad outcome. To prove the doctor’s fault, witnesses first review every aspect of the case with the legal team. The case includes medical records and statements from the plaintiff, the defendant, and any other involved parties, such as family members, nurses, or other doctors. During this review, expert witnesses look for any mistakes so they can determine which errors most directly led to the patient’s harm.
Then witnesses present their findings in court. Their testimony includes an expert opinion on what factors caused the patient to receive an inadequate standard of care. The witnesses state whether the doctor’s negligence was the primary problem or not. The judge or jury will consider that opinion before they declare their final verdict.
Who Can Be an Expert Medical Witness?
Expert witnesses for medical malpractice cases must meet certain criteria. These criteria vary from state to state, but they may include the following traits:
Licensed or certified. Most states require expert medical witnesses to be legally recognized health professionals. Their licenses must be current too. Retired physicians who no longer practice medicine may not qualify as expert witnesses.
Experienced. The doctor should practice a medical specialty pertinent to the case. For example, a dermatologist cannot testify about malpractice during open-heart surgery. The doctor also needs experience treating the specific health condition mentioned in the case.
Focused on medical work. Expert witnesses may have to prove that they spend most of their time practicing medicine. Some states have laws regulating this so doctors cannot become witnesses in numerous malpractice cases.
Expert witnesses play a vital role in most medical malpractice lawsuits. To ensure your case has qualified witnesses, consult with a law firm that specializes in medical malpractice. These firms seek out expert witnesses who present the facts of your case clearly and improve your chances for fair compensation.