Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Multi-million Dollar Verdict in Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Suit

When medical malpractice lawsuits go to trial, both sides will likely use expert witnesses to aid in the presentation of their case. In order to recover damages in any medical malpractice case, the injured party or family of the deceased person must show that the injury was the result of the doctor, hospital, or medical staff failing to uphold their duty to follow the set standards in the industry in order to provide competent medical care. Since many injured patients were already sick when they sought treatment, it becomes necessary during trial to show the fact-finder, or jury, what ‘went wrong’ beyond the original illness of the patient. This requires specialized testimony from expert witnesses.

In Kace vs. Gants (SJC-11827), the Supreme Judicial Court reviewed whether the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony was properly disclosed under the Commonwealth’s statutes. In this case, the administratrix of a deceased patient’s estate brought suit against the Emergency Room physician who treated the patient for several symptoms that included coughing, fever, malaise, and pleuritic chest pains. The defendant doctor ordered chest x-rays, which showed no abnormalities, but didn’t order an electrocardiogram or any blood tests. The patient was diagnosed with bronchitis and given an antibiotic and pain reliever, but the doctor did not consider myocarditis, a condition that begins with respiratory issues and spreads to the heart. Records reveal that the patient was likely only examined for five minutes. The patient was found dead the following morning, and the autopsy revealed that he perished from bronchitis and myocarditis.

Before an expert is allowed to provide testimony, the trial court must be confident that the witness is, in fact, an expert in the field for which she or he is providing testimony. In addition to the witness’ education credentials, both sides must submit witness disclosures and their anticipated testimony.

In Kace, the administratrix of the estate submitted a disclosure of the expert witness who would testify that the doctor failed to follow the expected care, which would have included the consideration of myocarditis and the use of tests to specifically rule out myocarditis. At trial, the defendant’s attorneys objected to questions regarding the five-minute visit. They pointed to the disclosure, arguing that the disclosure did not include any references to the allegedly negligent length of the visit. The trial court disagreed, determining that the disclosure was broad enough to imply that the amount of time fell below the standard of care in addition to the lack of tests performed. The Supreme Judicial Court was troubled by the lack of specificity compared to the reliance upon the time issue at trial, but it ultimately concluded that the borderline omission was not enough to require the reversal of the jury verdict. The jury verdict was upheld, and the administratrix was able to hold on to the multi-million dollar award given to the estate of the deceased patient.

The Massachusetts wrongful death and personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the medical malpractice litigation experience you need. Our attorneys understand the complexities of rules surrounding the expert witness requirements, and we can tirelessly work to maximize the damages you deserve. For a free, confidential consultation, call our office today at 508-822-6600.

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