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Understanding the Role of an Expert Witness

Medical ExpertMany medical malpractice cases turn out to be quite complex. They may hinge on minute evidence, difficult to parse for the non-medically minded. In these instances, many attorneys find it expedient to engage the services of an expert witness. Experts can greatly help the main thrust of your case, but they can affect other aspects of it as well.

Expert Qualifications in California

The role of an expert witness is to put complex concepts into simpler language for the judge or jury during a court proceeding. For example, an auto mechanic may qualify as an expert witness in a car accident case, and help explain to a jury why a certain car’s suspension failed. Medical expert witnesses are very often practicing physicians, though anyone who can be qualified by the court may, in theory, serve as an expert - California law states that anyone with special “knowledge, skill or experience” may qualify. In specific malpractice cases, it may be necessary to have a specialist as your expert - for example, in a birth injury case, a likely expert witness would be an obstetrician or surgeon, not just a general practitioner.

In most cases, a medical expert witness will answer two primary questions for the finder of fact: (1) did the defendant medical professional breach the prevailing standard of care; and (2) if so, did that breach injure the patient? These concepts are fundamental in negligence law, which provides the basis for medical malpractice statutes. If the answer to both of these questions is yes, the defendant will often be found liable, though not always.

The Specter of Malpractice Litigation

One peculiar circumstance that is somewhat unique to medical expert witnesses is the possibility of liability based on their testimony in another case. Historically, expert witnesses were tacitly held to be immune from suit based on admissions contained in expert testimony, arguing that if they were not, losing parties in suits might blame them unfairly for their losses. In recent years, however, the trend of absolute immunity has declined sharply.

Another potential source for expert liability is a potential breach of patient confidentiality, whether unintentional or negligent, especially in discussions not on the witness stand. A case in Missouri in 1993 held two medical expert witnesses liable for disclosing patient information in ex parte (in other words, for the benefit of only one party) conversations. In short, expert medical witnesses now must be doubly careful of their testimony, lest they not only torpedo the case in which they testify, but also possibly open themselves up to professional sanctions or even prosecution themselves.

Speak With a Medical Malpractice Attorney

If you have been injured by medical negligence or malpractice, it may be necessary to hire an expert in your case so that you have the best chance at receiving compensation. The dedicated San Jose medical malpractice attorneys at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. can help guide you through the process, answering any questions you may have about witnesses and protocol. Contact us via telephone or website today to discuss your options. We serve San Jose, the Bay Area, and the counties of San Benito, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Monterey.

Client Reviews
My experience with Attorney Brad Corsiglia during my recent medical malpractice case was nothing short of amazing given the very stressful circumstances. I was fortunate to find Brad highly recommended from a mutual contact and from the very beginning of the process, Brad was truly engaged and knowledgeable in understanding my case and providing input on what avenues were available to me. Michelle M.