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Common Uses of Expert Witnesses in Medical Malpractice Cases

Expert witness testimony is needed in most, if not all, medical malpractice lawsuits. This necessity is chiefly owed to two factors:

  • Facts are often too complex for lay persons to ascertain and comprehend.
  • Facts and issues are too complex for lay persons to make a determination if the doctor or medical professional should be held accountable for causing injury to a patient.

Accordingly, a medical expert's professional opinion is necessary to help navigate difficult fact patterns and to make a liability determination. In fact, in many states, a plaintiff must obtain a medical expert's opinion prior to even filing a suit with the appropriate court. In such jurisdictions, suits that do not meet this prerequisite hurdle are routinely and summarily dismissed.

Why Is Testimony of a Medical Expert Necessary?

Nearly every medical malpractice case needs the testimony of a medical professional to serve as an expert witness. The judge will dismiss the suit or decide the case on summary judgment very early in the life of the suit if such medical professional expert testimony is lacking. American jurisprudence dictates that for cases of a fairly technical nature, the trier of fact (often a jury) in medical malpractice suits needs a medical expert witness to sort through the dense facts, issues, and material that is otherwise too complicated to digest without such assistance.

Admittedly, the trier of fact is not required to believe or even abide by the opinions given by a particular medical expert witness. However, the trier of fact often utilizes the opinions of an expert to at least sort through the facts.

What Testimony Does a Medical Expert Provide?

A medical professional expert will tackle two major questions that form the heart and basis of all medical malpractice cases. Those two issues are the following:

  • Did the doctor or medical professional adhere to and abide by the industry standard of care for such professionals in the same field?
  • Did the doctor or medical professional's inability to adhere to and abide by the standard of care applicable to the field cause injury to the patient?

What Is the Standard of Care?

The standard of care is what a normal, average, competent doctor or medical professional would do in the particular situation presented by the medical malpractice lawsuit. This standard of care is what the medical expert will define and about which he or she will offer testimony to assist the trier of fact. Then, the expert witness offers a professional opinion of whether the doctor or medical professional defendant met that applicable standard of care. Experts often use medical publications, medical board guidelines, trade journals, textbooks, and similar materials to help them prepare their opinions and form the basis of their research.