Expert Witness Testimony: Just How Important is It?
- Dan T. Matrafajlo
- Fri Apr 2019
- Auto Accident,
You know you were severely injured. However, a jury isn’t just going to take your word. In fact, different types of expert witness testimony contribute greatly to the final verdict number. In the case of an expert medical opinion, it may even come down to determining whether your expert or the defense expert offers a more credible opinion.
When you are injured in an automobile accident and make a claim, you are required to submit to an independent medical examination (IME). The IME physician comes back with an opinion that often differs from reports written by your treating doctors.
It might seem unreasonable for a jury to determine damages based on a report of someone who met you for a small amount of time. However, your attorney will also arrange for you to meet with a medical expert. In a perfect world, both sets of medical experts will have copies of your treatment records. Of course, they will also conduct physical examinations.
Determining the permanent nature as far as long-term consequences of injuries represents a critical part of the role of the medical expert witness. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the issue of expert witness testimony in Hayes v. Delamotte. You may be interested in a brief summary of the case.
Supreme Court on Expert Witness Testimony
Doreen Hayes injured her cervical spine when she was a passenger in an automobile accident driven by her mother. Doreen brought a claim against her mother, as well as the other motorist who she felt was responsible for her accident. When the case went to trial, the jury agreed that the motor vehicle operator was negligent.
That said, the jury disputed the permanency of Doreen’s injuries. As a result, the verdict was entered in favor of the defendant. After all, without damages, Doreen had no case.
How did this happen? The jury’s verdict had everything to do with the differences in expert opinion. As her car insurance carrier, GEICO Insurance Company provided for Barbara Delanotte’s legal representation. They also arranged for Doreen’s IME with an orthopedic surgeon.
When the defense presented their case at the trial, the jury listened to the videotaped deposition of the expert testimony of the orthopedic surgeon. The doctor testified concerning Doreen’s physical examination. Additionally, the expert described findings on two different Magnetic Resonance Images (MRIs).
According to the testimony, one MRI represented images taken before the accident in 2017. The other showed the plaintiff’s spine after the occurrence of the car crash. Although Doreen’s lawyer objected, the medical expert also shared opinions found in reports not called into court to provide testimony.
One problem. Both MRIs contained labels with the same post-accident dates. Indeed, the orthopedic surgeon testified there were no differences in what he distinguished as images taken on two separate dates. However, any misconceptions concerning the MRIs were not addressed at the deposition or even brought up at trial until the very end.
During closing arguments, Doreen’s attorney attempted to replay the portion of the video that showed the MRIs were labeled with the same date. The inference was that the medical expert compared two images that were likely the same ones. Not surprisingly, Barbara’s attorneys objected. The court denied the plaintiff’s request, explaining that expert testimony would be necessary to show the MRIs were the same.
Case Goes to Trial a Second Time
When the jury did not award her damages, Doreen’s legal counsel filed a motion for a new trial. They argued that the replay of the doctor’s testimony should be admissible. Although the court found that replaying the video would have been prejudicial, a new trial was granted.
In granting the new trial, the trial court stated that as the injury victim, Doreen “did not receive substantial justice” because “the jury gave greater weight” to the testimony of defendants’ expert than to that of plaintiff’s expert.”
Liability was not an issue in the second trial. Instead, the jury only considered whether Doreen was entitled to damages as a result of her injuries. The medical expert witness resolved the problems with the MRI dates. Also, the court ruled on the misuse of the non-testifying experts to validate the doctor’s opinion.
At the second trial, the jury awarded Doreen $250K in damages for the injuries she suffered in the accident. The defendant disagreed with the verdict and appealed.
On to Appellate Court
When the Appellate Division reviewed the case, they decided that the second trial was improperly granted. They reinstated the jury award from the first trial. Of course, that meant Doreen would receive no compensation for her injuries.
According to the Appeals Court, “there was no credible evidence or expert testimony in the record that the MRI films were incorrectly used.” They also agreed with the judge during the first trial that an expert would need to testify regarding any mislabeling of the MRIs. Replaying the video was prejudicial and “would have given rise to unfair surprise.”
As a result of the ruling from the Appellate Division, the plaintiff petitioned the Supreme Court for consideration. Doreen’s lawyers presented case law showing that videotaped testimony can be replayed in court during summation. It was akin to actual testimony and admitted into evidence.
Plaintiff’s counsel wanted to present the videotapes to emphasize the dates on the MRIs. As it stands, the orthopedic surgeon actually pointed to the labels bearing the same dates during his testimony. Since the video was in evidence, Doreen’s attorney had every right to reference it and show it during summation.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court also considered the issue of needing an expert to determine if the two MRIs were actually the same ones. Jurors did not need an expert to read the dates and recognize them as the same.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed that the plaintiff was entitled to a new trial. Therefore, Doreen was entitled to the monetary damages awarded in the second trial.
If you are involved in any type of personal injury case, expert witness testimony may be critical. At the Law Offices of Beninato & Matrafajlo, we help injury victims prove their cases and receive compensation. Need assistance? Give us a call to make an appointment.