Medical Malpractice: Understanding The Role Of Expert Testimony

In many medical malpractice cases, expert testimony is required to move the case forward. Expert testimony plays an essential role in determining medical negligence under the US judicial system. The courts rely on the testimony of experts to establish the standards of care in regards to a medical malpractice suit.

Medical malpractice claims arise from negligence in the delivery of medical care. The claims are typically based on intentional misconduct, breach of a contract, defamation, divulgence of confidential information, insufficient informed consent, or failure to prevent foreseeable injuries. A negative medical outcome alone is not sufficient to indicate professional negligence.

Under the law of negligence, the standard of care is a “degree of care which a reasonably prudent person should exercise in same or similar circumstances.” If the defendant’s conduct falls outside the standards, then he or she may be found liable for any damages that resulted from his or her conduct. This is where the role of an expert witness comes in.

Expert witnesses have ethical and professional obligations to assist in the administration of justice in matters concerning potential medical malpractice. The expert is expected to give testimony that describes the standard of care relevant to a given case, identify breaches in those standards, and render an opinion on whether those breaches are the most likely cause of injury. The expert may also testify about the current clinical state of a patient when damages are being determined.

Ideally, expert witnesses should be unbiased conveyers of information. The interests of the public and the medical profession are best served when scientifically sound and unbiased expert testimony is readily available to plaintiffs and defendants. Regrettably, not all expert testimony falls within these boundaries. Despite the critical importance of expert witnesses, no uniform standards on credentialing currently exist.

The medical community is aware of the problems with expert testimony and their effects on the outcome of widely publicized trials. The US Supreme Court formulated new guidelines on the proper standard for admissibility of scientific evidence in federal courts. Those guidelines stated that trial judges should ensure that any expert testimony is relevant to the case at hand and rests on reliable science.

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