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The Role of Expert Witnesses in Medical Malpractice Cases

Expert witnesses are absolutely critical in medical malpractice cases. That is because many of these matters revolve around complex distinctions in medical terminology and protocols. The expert witness is able to connect the dots, providing professional explanation of how a certain course of conduct deviate from acceptable standards. Without that connection is usually hard (often impossible) for juries to truly evaluate the information before it to make logical decisions about potential liability. That is why for a case to advance, in many settings, expert testimony is not just helpful–it is required.

Experts are used not only in cases that go to trial. Even before a trial, during the discovery phase, both sides will usually submit expert witnesses to be deposed. Essentially this involves each side interviewing each expert witness, asking questions and receiving answers that would be used in a trial if it happens to go that far. All of this means that one of the most important skills that a medical malpractice lawyer must possess is the ability to understand how to deal with these witnesses–both those on their side and opposing experts. Identifying key discrepancies, exploring questionable answers, ensuring full explanations, and other strengths often make or break a particular medical malpractice case.

Expert Witness Examples
Recently “The Expert Institute” shared a few basic case studies that indicate how an expert might answer a question in various medical malpractice cases. These brief Q and A posts are helpful for those interested in learning more about how an expert may deal with a critical issue in a case and explain it.

One example involved a case alleging failure to remove a malignant tumor in a patient who had breast cancer. The woman underwent surgery to have some different cancerous tumors removed. However, in a follow up with a different oncologist, questions were raised about the conduct of her first medical team. Specifically, the second team noticed that various tissues should have been removed but were not. A second surgery was performed but her overall prognosis was poor, mostly due to the delay in the second operation. A medical malpractice lawsuit was filed.

The expert witness in the case was asked if the decision by the first doctor (defendant) directly caused the recurrence of cancer. This is a common contested issue in failure to perform or diagnose legal actions, as even if mistakes were made, those mistakes must be shown to have specifically caused increased patient harm.

The expert witness explained that the action did in fact cause harm. The expert pointed to specific randomized trials showing how various other possible causes generally were not shown to cause cancer recurrence. However, those in the patient’s position, without quick action, generally do have worse outcomes. In other words, the doctor explained how all of the alternative options that the defense-team would likely try to argue were simply not supported by the data.

It is worthwhile to check out the other case studies on the site if you are interested in learning more about some of the more nuanced issues faced by expert in these cases. Even with the experts, the technical matters are sometimes not easy to grasp, and it takes focused work on the attorney’s part to break down the evidence in an explainable way.

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