Trial court erred in limiting the experts in medical malpractice case

In McLean v. Liberty Health System, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, ordered a new trial in a fatal medical malpractice case. The Appellate Division held in 2013 that a ruling by the trial court erred by restricting each side to one expert witness on the central disputed issue in the case, whether the defendants deviated from accepted standards of medical care.

Background

In 2005, the plaintiff's 16-year-old son was stabbed in the thigh and arm in an assault. He was treated at the emergency department of a medical center, given a prescription for an antibiotic and discharged. The wounds appeared to have healed a few weeks later.

Approximately six weeks after the stabbing incident, the plaintiff's son went to the hospital emergency room because he was experiencing low back pain radiating into his left leg. The emergency room doctor diagnosed him with a back sprain, prescribed pain medication and a muscle relaxant, and discharged him.

When his pain worsened, he was subsequently readmitted to the hospital, where he suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. He was eventually diagnosed with a staph infection. The infection and the heart attack caused brain damage that paralyzed him from the neck down and he died two years later of complications from quadriplegia.

Procedural history

In 2008, the plaintiff filed a medical malpractice suit, alleging that the defendant hospital and emergency room doctor negligently failed to consider and test the plaintiff's son for a staph infection as a possible cause of his back and leg pain.

At trial, the trial court limited each side to one expert on the subject of whether the defendant deviated from the accepted standard of medical care for an emergency department physician. The jury issued a verdict finding that the defendants were not negligent in the treatment they provided. The plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division's ruling

The Appellate Division reversed, stating that the trial court's ruling, restricting each side to only one expert for each relevant field of medicine, was improper, particularly where the ruling limited expert testimony that was at the heart of her case, whether the defendants deviated from accepted standards of medical care for an emergency department physician. The appellate court stated that nothing in the state's laws or court rules authorized the trial court to balance the number of witnesses each side may present at a trial. The trial court exceeded its authority when it barred vital evidence on the basis that it was "duplicative" of the testimony of another witness.

In this particular case, the jury had to choose between the opinions of each side's expert. Both parties should have been allowed to strengthen the testimony of their experts by submitting additional opinions from other experts who reached similar conclusions.

Under the state's rules of evidence, trial courts may bar relevant evidence where it might unduly delay the trial or would be a waste of time, such as "cumulative" evidence, additional evidence of the same character as evidence previously offered as proof on the same disputed factual matter. The Appellate Division held that allowing two medical experts to testify on the crucial issue of liability in a malpractice case would not be considered needless cumulative evidence under the evidence rules.

Contact an attorney

Since these types of cases can be very complex, it is extremely important for individuals who have sustained injuries of this nature to seek the advice of an experienced attorney in order to protect their legal rights and those of their loved ones.