Category Archives: ExpertWitness

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How Should an Expert Prepare for an Online (e.g. ZOOM) Deposition?

During the pandemic, many things that can be done remotely are in fact being done remotely: those whose jobs allow it are working at home; we interact with our friends and family online; and motion hearings are often being done remotely. Expert witness depositions are also being taken remotely.. There are a number of upsides to this, beyond decreasing potential exposure to the Covid-19 virus: for example, saving the time and travel costs associated with bringing an expert to an in-person deposition or opening up the universe of potential experts by increasing the ability to tap others who are less local.

But there are also challenges associated with online depositions. Some are for the attorney, not the expert, such as coordinating with the court reporter to make sure everything will be properly recorded. For the expert, there are plenty of things the expert should do to prepare for the deposition.

Technical & General Preparation

First, the expert should find out what software will be used for the deposition, make sure it’s downloaded ahead of time, and test the system— including the computer’s camera, microphone, and speakers — well in advance. Frantically trying to download and install the software when its “go” time does not engender confidence in your client or his or her attorney — and will not make the other side take you seriously.

Second, the expert should double check what will be in his or her background during the deposition and “stage” the setting appropriately. It may be helpful to have diplomas, technical certifications or licenses, treatises, and perhaps some tasteful and unobjectionable artwork as background. Don’t have children’s artwork, stuffed animals, the trashy novels the expert reads during his or her downtime, or anything controversial or political in view. The background framing the expert should look as professional as would the inside of the law firm conference room where in-person depositions are typically taken.

Related to this: the attorney taking the deposition may — and can — ask the expert to pan the camera around the room to make sure there is no one there feeding the expert cues or responses. Make sure the entire room is a suitable backdrop for a deposition.

Third: dress to impress. Yes, we all know that Zoom conference dress codes are generally laxer than in-person dress codes … but a deposition is the exception that proves the rule. Treat it as what it effectively is: a remote court hearing. After all, the video may be played in court — the expert should not wear anything he or she would not want a judge or jury to see him or her in. And yes — that includes work pants (or skirt) and work shoes: the expert should not assume that it’s enough to wear a dress shirt and blazer, since at some point, he or she may stand up or back-up or otherwise bring what’s below the waist into view.

Coffee or water — leaving the field of view of an online deposition presents issues that getting up from your chair in an in-person deposition does not. For example: did you get up so you could call, text, or email someone off camera, to get guidance as to how to answer? It is better to minimize, to the greatest degree possible, having to get up and break the online deposition. You can’t control bathroom breaks, but you can minimize breaks for water, coffee, or granola/energy bars: lay the refreshments out ahead of time, if you can.

Logistical Preparation — Exhibits

It’s always best practice for the expert, the attorney for the expert’s client, opposing counsel, and the court reporters to always have their own pre-marked set of exhibits. (Always pre-mark exhibits: it saves time and cuts down on confusion.) But in an in-person deposition, a failure to do so is of less moment: the parties can share exhibits on the spot, then provide extra copies later, as needed. However, that’s clearly not an option during a remote deposition, where you might have people in four, five, or more locations (e.g. the expert, the attorneys on each side, any litigants attending the deposition, and the court reporter may all be appearing from their own homes or offices); everyone needs to have their own copy in advance.

The real responsibility for marking and forwarding exhibits this rests principally on the attorney taking the deposition, but the expert should at least contact the attorney representing his or her client to make sure that copies of any exhibits are forwarded to him or her … after all, everyone is working outside their comfort zone during the pandemic and things drop in the cracks, so to speak. By checking to make sure that he or she has copies in advance of anything he or she will be questioned about, the expert can help make sure the deposition is fruitful and not a waste of anyone’s time — and if the proper exhibits are not provided to the expert, at least he or she can truthfully say that they tried and therefore are not responsible for any lapses.

Similarly, if there are materials that the expert is asked to bring, such as any treatises that he or she relied upon in coming to an expert opinion, the expert should either copy and provide shorter materials (they can be provided to the attorney representing the expert’s client, who then will circulate them) or at least provide — well in advance — the citations for any longer works, so that anyone who wants to have a copy during the deposition has the chance to obtain them.

And then there are demonstrative exhibits which are things which are not evidence in and of themselves, but illustrate key evidentiary points. They are the equivalent of the graphics the nightly news puts up to illustrate important statistics or developments. These always have had to be created in advance … but now the expert may need to create them differently. What looks good in person may NOT look good when viewed on your MacBook Air’s camera. Test the demonstrative exhibits on the video conferencing platform you are using in advance and make sure they work.

Testimonial Preparation

Experts should always review their testimony in advance with the attorney representing their client. Yes, they can’t “script it,” and the expert (and attorney) have a legal and ethical obligation to assure that all testimony is truthful … but all that said, the lawyer and expert should go over in advance what issues the opposition is expected to ask about and some “basics” about testifying — e.g. to pause a moment before answering, in case the lawyer wants to object; to not extrapolate, but only answer the question that is asked; to not be afraid to ask for clarification of an unclear question; etc.

But bear in mind that a Zoom (or the equivalent) deposition will present challenges an in-person deposition does not, such as the possibility of the deposition “freezing” at an inopportune moment or losing connection momentarily. Discuss with the lawyer representing the expert’s client how to deal with those eventualities — does the expert ask for the question to be restated after the interference or break? Does the expert leave a longer-than-normal pause before answering, to make sure the lawyer has time to object? And so forth. Assume there will be connectivity issues at inopportune moments and plan for them, so that the expert and his/her client’s attorney are reading (so to speak) from the same playbook. Do not assume that the lawyer representing your client will always be able to object in real time to problematic questions.

During the Deposition

We’ve alluded to this above, but experience teaches us that Zoom, Microsoft Go To Meeting, and similar software will have problems in practice: internet connections stutter or drop out, there are buffering issues, etc. During all depositions, the deponent — including an expert witness — should not hesitate to ask the examining attorney to restate or repeat a question. But this goes doubly for remote depositions, due to software and connectivity issues. When in doubt, the expert should ask opposing counsel to restate or rephrase his or her question.

In Conclusion

Compare a Zoom call with a friend or family member with talking with that individual face-to-face. You may find it more challenging and less rewarding. There may be parts of the conversation which were not clear or garbled. That’s for an informal, “no stakes” call. Now imagine what it might be like for a formal, high stakes call, such as you will find in a remote deposition. Plan for the inevitable Zoom-related issues in advance.

#9867034 Mallet And Stethoscope Over Sound Block In Court

Experts Improperly Excluded from Giving Res Ipsa Loquitur Testimony in Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

In most medical malpractice cases, one or more expert witnesses for the plaintiff testify about the appropriate standard of care, a physician’s breach of that standard, and how the breach caused an injury to the patient. In most of those cases, a specific negligent act is identified as the mechanism that caused the harm. In some cases, however, no single act of negligence is the clear cause of the patient’s injury.

A legal theory known as res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”) allows negligence to be inferred from the nature of the accident. If it is unreasonable to conclude that the accident could have occurred in the absence of a negligent act, negligence can be inferred.

Alma Willis sued a plastic surgeon and other healthcare providers, alleging their negligence during surgical procedures regarding her breasts and abdomen. Although the experts testified to various breaches of standards of care, they could not determine which specific breach caused Willis’ injuries. The trial court did not allow the experts to testify that her injuries would not have occurred in the absence of negligence.

The trial and appellate courts treated the argument that no injury could have occurred without negligence as being based on res ipsa loquitur. An Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Willis’ experts should have been allowed to testify that no injury would have occurred in the absence of a negligent act, even if they could not identify the specific negligent act that caused her injury.

Willis’ Surgery and Its Aftermath

Willis’ doctor recommended that she have surgery to relieve her back problems. A plastic surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Flagg, performed surgery to reduce the size of one breast and to reconstruct the other. He also performed a revision of her abdomen.

Dr. Flagg decided to perform all the procedures in a single surgery. He told Willis the operation would take five hours but it actually lasted twelve hours.

Willis was discharged the next day despite having painful swelling in her arms. Three days later, her daughter observed that she was disoriented. The daughter brought Willis back to the hospital, where doctors found blood clots (pulmonary embolism) in both of her lungs. She remained in the hospital for a week as the clots were treated.

During her hospitalization, nurses noted that Willis continued to complain about ongoing pain in her right hand that had been present since the surgery. A nurse noted in her chart that doctors were aware of her complaint.

Willis’ pain persisted after her discharge. About a month after her surgery, a neurologist determined that she had sustained nerve damage near her right elbow and in the carpal tunnel. Surgery to relieve pressure on the nerves was only partially successful. She continues to have pain and some limitation of motion in her right hand.

Willis’ Litigation

Willis sued Dr. Flagg, the hospital where her surgery was performed, and the anesthesiologists involved in the surgery. She alleged that Dr. Flagg unnecessarily prolonged her surgery and that her nerve injury would not have occurred in the absence of medical negligence.

Although an anesthesiologist testified that he did not remember the surgery, he believed that he, Dr. Flagg, and the initial nurse anesthetist would have supervised the positioning of Willis’ body during surgery. He thought they would have placed soft restraints on her arms between the wrists and the elbows, that they would have checked her positioning every hour, and that they would have repositioned her before the abdominal surgery.

Dr. Flagg testified that the surgery was prolonged by the discovery of a large mass on the chest wall. He acknowledged that longer surgeries increase the chance of developing a blood clotting condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). He also acknowledged that Willis suffered from DVT after the surgery.

Dr. Flagg did not prescribe anticoagulants after the surgery, although he agreed that anticoagulants are one way to prevent DVT. He instead gave instructions to have Willis walk and move around after surgery, although he did not put that instruction into her discharge orders.

Willis’ Expert Testimony

Willis’ treating neurologist testified that the nerve damage near her wrist was caused by the carpal tunnel filling with fluid. Charles Barton, a nurse anesthetist, testified that the nurse anesthetist who positioned Willis during her surgery violated the standard of care by failing to position her correctly and by infusing far too much fluid. Barton also attributed the swelling in her arms after surgery to excessive fluid.

An orthopedic surgeon, Dr. John Fernandez, testified that Willis’ surgery caused her nerve damage. He opined that injuries to her brachial muscles that were shown on an MRI and injuries to her nerves shown on an EMG would not “just happen on their own.” Since Willis had no symptoms of those injuries before the surgery, they must have been caused by the surgery.

A neurologist, Dr. William McElveen, explained that a hematoma, probably caused by compression, led to the swelling at the elbow. He believed the compression could have been caused by the blood pressure cuff on her arm, someone leaning on her arm, or the extended position maintained during the surgery. He rejected the theory that nerve damage was caused by improper insertion of a needle during her subsequent hospitalization for blood clotting because Willis would have felt and complained about extreme pain if that had happened.

Dr. Geoffrey Keyes, a plastic surgeon, testified that the applicable standard of care required Dr. Flagg to end the surgery after he completed the abdominal revision, about five hours into the surgery, because Willis had lost a great deal of blood. The prolonged surgery and excessive blood loss increased the risk of complications, including pulmonary embolisms. He thought the prolonged surgery and Willis’ positioning most likely resulted in her nerve damage, although he could not identify the specific mechanism by which pressure was placed on the nerve. He thought the swelling of her arms might have caused the straps that held her arms to tighten, compressing the nerve.

Testifying as an expert in anesthesia, Dr. Brian McAlary testified that multiple factors, taken together, might have caused Willis’ arms to swell, even if no single factor was responsible. He identified the administration of excessive fluids, diminished oxygen delivery to the nerves in her arms, and the failure to change the position of her arms during surgery as contributing factors.

The court would not permit the experts to testify that the nerve damage would not have occurred in the absence of negligence. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants.

Appellate Decision

On appeal, Willis challenged the trial court’s refusal to allow her experts to testify that the injuries could not have happened unless the healthcare providers were negligent. She also challenged the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury that it could infer negligence if the principles of res ipsa loquitur were satisfied.

In Illinois, negligence can be inferred from the fact of an injury if (1) an injury of that nature would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence, and (2) the means of causing the injury were within the defendant’s exclusive control. Under those circumstances, the plaintiff need not call a witness who saw the act that caused the injury.

Willis was unconscious during her surgery and could not have seen anything. Since she was under the control of the defendants, a jury could find that any injury occurring during the surgery was caused by negligence if the injury would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence.

Willis presented expert evidence that she was injured during surgery. That evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to reject the defendant’s claim that she was injured during her second hospitalization. It was up to the jury to decide whether to believe Willis’ experts or the defense experts.

Willis’ also presented expert evidence that standards of care were breached during her surgery. Experts testified in depositions that the nerve damage Willis sustained would not have occurred in the absence of negligence. No defense evidence suggested a non-negligent explanation for the nerve damage that occurred during the surgery.

The trial court thought that res ipsa loquitur was inapplicable because Willis’ expert witnesses agreed that nerve compression during the surgery caused the injury. But the witnesses did not know what caused the nerve compression. It could have been caused by failing to loosen straps when Willis’ arms started swelling, or by administering excessive fluid during the operation, or by leaning against Willis’ body during the surgery, or by failing to reposition her during the lengthy breast surgery, or by repositioning her incorrectly before the abdominal surgery.

The trial court erred by concluding that the expert witnesses understood the mechanism of the injury. The outcome was a compressed nerve, but the mechanism by which the nerve became compressed was unknown.

A dissenting opinion suggested that the second hospitalization was a possible cause of the injury outside the defendants’ control and that the res ipsa theory was therefore unavailable. The majority opinion recognized that Willis’ experts provided ample reason to reject the testimony of the defense experts as speculative.

Which experts were worthy of belief was for the jury, not appellate judges, to decide. Willis was therefore entitled to have the jury instructed that it could find in favor of Willis if they agreed that (1) her injuries occurred while she was under the control of the defendants during the first surgery, and (2) those injuries would not ordinarily occur without negligence. She was also entitled to have her experts testify that she would not have been injured if negligent acts had not occurred.

A res ipsa loquitur jury instruction, and testimony that the injury could not have occurred in the absence of negligence, were necessary for a fair trial. Since Willis did not receive a fair trial, she was entitled to present her expert’s full opinions and to have her case decided upon the basis of correct jury instructions in a new trial.

 

Late Disclosure of Expert Witnesses in Divorce Trial Leads to Order Barring Their Testimony

Jeffrey and Julie Nelson were involved in a divorce proceeding that lasted longer than their four-year marriage. After five earlier appeals from provisional orders pending the final hearing, an appeal of the final outcome was seemingly inevitable.

One of the sticking points involved the value of Jeffrey’s interest in oil leases. Julie testified about Jeffrey’s ownership of those interests and presented expert testimony about their value. Jeffrey did not testify but offered expert testimony of his own. The trial court decided that Jeffrey’s expert was not qualified and therefore declined to consider his opinion.

The day before the final day of trial, Jeffrey disclosed two new experts. One would have testified that Julie’s expert overvalued the oil leases. The other would have testified about the amount and sources of Jeffrey’s income.

Julie had served an interrogatory upon Jeffrey that asked for the disclosure of experts. Julie contended that Jeffrey should have supplemented his interrogatory answers to disclose the two new experts. The court agreed with Julie that the disclosure of those experts on the day prior to the last day of trial came too late. The court excluded the experts from testifying as a discovery sanction. Jeffrey appealed and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Late Disclosure of Experts

On appeal, Jeffrey apparently did not take issue with the trial court’s decision that his original expert was not qualified to render an expert opinion. Rather, he contended that the court should not have excluded the experts he proffered during the trial.

The hearing took place on six days between November 2018 and July 2019. Julie’s expert testified on June 25, 2019. Jeffrey complained that he did not have enough time between June 25 and July 12 (the last day of trial) to retain new experts. Jeffrey argued that he did not recognize the need for expert testimony until Julie’s expert gave valuation testimony that Jeffrey realized was clearly wrong.

The appellate court characterized Jeffrey’s argument that he did not anticipate the need for expert testimony as “baffling.” Jeffrey knew that Julie contended the oil leases were marital property that was subject to division. He knew the court needed to place a value on property that it divided. He apparently knew that he would not be relying on his own testimony to establish their value, given his decision not to testify.

It is difficult to understand why Jeffrey did not know in advance of trial the opinions that Julie’s expert would offer. If Jeffrey did not engage in discovery, that choice would not excuse his failure to anticipate the need to call his own expert witnesses.

The appellate court was unsympathetic with the claim that Jeffrey had too little time to find an expert. He should not have waited until Julie’s expert testified to begin his search. Under the circumstances, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in excluding Jeffrey’s experts due to Jeffrey’s belated disclosure of their identities.

Lessons Learned

The trial court was plainly influenced by its belief that Jeffrey’s late disclosure was an obstructive litigation tactic. The court characterized Jeffrey as having “repeatedly interrupted, obstructed, embarrassed, and prevented the due administration of justice in these dissolution proceedings.”

Obstructive tactics will never endear a litigant to a judge. The lesson to learn is that lawyers should make diligent efforts to learn what expert testimony an opposing party will present, to locate experts who can present more favorable testimony (if any exist), and to respond to a request to disclose experts in a timely manner.

Water Treatment

Judge Pauses Trial After Hearing Expert Testimony About Fluoridation of Drinking Water

Conspiracy theories sometimes overcome facts in the minds of those who are inclined to believe them. Few public policies have been attacked by conspiracy theorists as persistently as fluoridation. Yet modern science raises legitimate questions about the risks and benefits of fluoridating water.

During the 1950s and into the 1960s, a popular conspiracy theory convinced many believers that fluoridation was a Communist plot. An equally far-fetched theory insisted that fluoride is a mind control chemical that governments rely upon to control their populations.

Fluoridation of public drinking water is intended to prevent tooth decay. While conspiracy theories have no basis in fact, legitimate scientific debates have long addressed the balance between the public health benefits and the risks of fluoridation.

Critics have also complained that fluoridation deprives individuals of freedom to choose whether or not to expose themselves to fluoride. That isn’t quite true, because people are free to forego municipal water and to drink fluoride-free bottled water, albeit at their own expense.

The government often requires people to do things they don’t like (paying taxes, for example) in order to serve the greater good. Debates about the wisdom of public programs that depend on a cost-benefit analysis should be driven by facts. In the case of fluoridation as well as other public health issues, facts are supplied by experts because they have knowledge and experience that the rest of us lack.

Fluoride and IQ

Responding to evidence that fluoridation can have an impact on cognitive development, the Department of Health and Human Services in 2015 recommended that water utilities reduce the amount of fluoride added to tap water from 1.2 parts per million (ppm) to 0.7 ppm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement in 2018 that endorsed fluoridation of community water supplies to reduce the health risks associated with tooth decay.

Dr. Phillipe Grandjean, an Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, authored a 2019 review of studies that addressed the relationship between fluoride intake and IQ levels. Dr. Grandjean concluded that “elevated fluoride intake during early development can result in IQ deficits that may be considerable.”

Dr. Granjean concluded that the impact of fluoride on IQ is dose dependent. In other words, greater exposure is likely to have a greater impact on IQ. He also found that “tentative benchmark dose calculations suggest that safe exposures are likely to be below currently accepted or recommended fluoride concentrations in drinking water.”

Fluoridation Lawsuit

Everyone agrees that too much fluorine in drinking water would be unsafe. Experts dispute whether the permitted level of fluorine creates an unreasonable risk to the public.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not require municipalities to add fluorine to public water supplies, but it does limit the amount that they can add. Since a “safe” amount of exposure is difficult to establish with certainty, opponents of fluoridation argue that it should be not permitted at all.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) allows citizens to petition the EPA to address unreasonable risks posed by toxic chemicals. In November 2016, a group of organizations, including the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, the Fluoride Action Network, and Moms Against Fluoridation, petitioned the EPA “to protect the public and susceptible subpopulations from the neurotoxic risks of fluoride by banning the addition of fluoridation chemicals to water.”

The EPA denied the petition on February 17, 2017. It concluded that the studies supplied by the petitioners did not prove that any person had actually suffered neurotoxic harm because of fluoride exposure. The petitioners then sued the EPA for breaching its statutory duty to protect the public from unsafe toxins.

While most administrative decisions are reviewed deferentially by federal courts, the TSCA entitles petitioners to a de novo proceeding and to prove the need for regulation by a preponderance of the evidence. After denying summary judgment motions that had been filed by both parties, the case proceeded to trial.

Petitioners’ Expert Evidence

The petitioners relied on the expert opinions of Howard Hu, Bruce Lanphear, Philippe Grandjean, and Kathleen Thiessen. The EPA and other government agencies have in the past relied on each of those experts for guidance. Their qualifications as experts were not seriously contested.

The petitioners’ experts pointed to evidence that fluoride passes through the placenta into the brain of the fetus. They opined that babies who are bottle fed with fluoridated water are being exposed to fluoride at the most vulnerable point in their lives, while their brains are still developing.

The petitioners’ experts cited animal studies that, according to EPA experts, produced mixed results. The petitioners’ experts also relied on birth cohort studies that found associations between early life exposures to fluoride and a reduction of IQ by about five points.

EPA Expert Evidence

The EPA argued that there is too much uncertainty about safe dosage limits to support an outright ban on fluoridated water. It relied on two toxicologists employed by Exponent, an engineering and scientific consulting firm.

Joyce Tsuji and Ellen Chang testified that the scientific literature does not support a clear connection between fluoridated water at the current maximum dose and adverse health effects. Accordingly, they contended that fluoride at 0.7 ppm is not a neurotoxin.

The EPA contended that the law requires it to balance risks and benefits when it decides whether a risk is unreasonable. There is undeniably a benefit to reducing tooth decay. While that goal can be achieved more efficiently in other ways, fluoridation assures that everyone who drinks from a public water supply receives some protection against tooth decay.

The EPA uses expert staff members to determine whether the benefit of a chemical is outweighed by an unreasonable risk of toxicity. The EPA called its employee, Kris Thayer, as a fact witness to testify about that process. It did not, however, call Dr. Thayer as an expert witness and therefore did not ask her to assess the scientific literature regarding fluoride exposure. The petitioners asked the court to infer that she was not called as an expert because her testimony would have been unfavorable to the EPA.

The petitioners also pointed to the opinion of Joyce Donohue, an EPA staff scientist, who agreed that studies by the National Institute of Health warrant a reassessment of all existing fluoride standards.

Trial Paused

Having listened to the expert testimony, the presiding judge pressed the pause button and asked the EPA to reconsider its position. The judge noted that cohort studies are the gold standard of scientific evidence in cases involving toxic chemicals. The cohort studies that the petitioners relied upon had not been published when the petition was filed.

After suggesting that the EPA applied the wrong causation standard, the judge asked whether it would be productive for the petitioners to file an amended petition citing the new studies so that the EPA could make a new determination using the correct standard. He also suggested that the EPA could reconsider its ruling in light of new evidence.

Neither party supported the judge’s solution. The EPA noted that it has no authority to reconsider a petition that it has denied. It also contended that it has no ability to review an amended petition within 90 days as required by the TSCA. The latter argument, amounting to “we don’t have the resources to obey the law,” did not impress the judge.

The petitioners contend that the EPA is entrenched in its position, perhaps for political rather than scientific reasons, and that it is unlikely to budge. The petitioners suggested that giving the EPA a “do-over” would be a waste of time.

The judge postponed proceedings to give the parties an opportunity to negotiate a proposed path forward. If they are unable to come to an agreement by August 6, the judge may decide to make a ruling based on the arguments and expert testimony presented at the trial.

 

Florida Computer Expert Arrested for Lying About Credentials Under Oath

Florida State Attorney Releases “Brady Alert List”

Orange-Osceola, Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala has released a new database that identifies experts that have credibility issues. This database is called the “Brady Alert List.”

Ayala created this database to have a centralized list of witnesses who appear in court on a recurring basis and who have engaged in criminal behavior, misconduct, or dishonesty.

Brady Committee

Ayala initially announced her plans to create this database in July 2019. With the database came the creation of a Brady Committee to evaluate witness credibility. The Brady Committee is comprised of the director of conviction integrity, the chief investigator, two felony bureau chiefs, and the chief assistant state attorney.

The Brady Committee is tasked with reviewing information about witnesses and determined whether witnesses should be cleared, placed on a Brady Alert List, or placed on a Brady exclusion, or “Last Resort” list.

If a witness is listed on the Brady alert list, the prosecutors will be notified. It will be up to the prosecutors whether to proceed with caution or obtain permission if they choose to call that person as a witness. If a witness is on the Brady exclusion list, he or she is not permitted to testify as a state witness.

In explaining her reasoning for creating the Brady Alert List, Ayala explained, “My office processes hundreds of thousands of criminal cases every year, and in many instances, prosecutions rely solely on the honest and credible testimony of law enforcement and other personnel who either witness or investigate crimes.”

Ayala gave the example of a recurring state expert witness who was later found to have questionable credentials. A former fingerprint examiner had documented performance issues relating to failing to identify prints of value, questionable findings, and mislabeling of print cards. This issue was not discovered for two years. The 2,500 cases that involved this expert are currently under review.

Review Process

The Brady Committee has been meeting monthly since June 2019 to determine who should be on the list. The committee initiates a review of a law enforcement officer or expert witness when that person is relieved of duty, under investigation for criminal conduct, or accused of any other misconduct. Once someone is added to the database, their place of employment is notified.

The Fraternal Order of Police has raised concerns about the Brady Committee and its process. The Order has suggested that the committee should have members outside of the state attorney’s office on it, that it publish its criteria, and that due process be provided for the people placed on the list. The organization’s concern may be related to the fact that prosecutors so often rely on law enforcement officers with dubious credentials as expert witnesses.

Initial Release

The newly released list includes 38 law enforcement officers, confidential informants, and forensic experts. This first iteration of the list is only a Brady Alert List. None of the names were listed on a Brady Last Resort List.

Ayala said that she believed that some of the names listed on the initial Brady Alert List should have instead been on a Last Resort list, but that she decided not to immediately publish a Last Resort list when the Orlando Police Department Chief Orlando Rolon told her that anyone that was placed on this list would not be able to function at the agency, but would still have to be paid.

 

No Expert Needed for Improper Morphine Injection Claim in Nevada

The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that the “common knowledge” exception to the affidavit requirement for professional negligence claims against a health care provider can be applied to determine whether a claim constituted negligence.

The Accidental Death

Mary Curtis was a resident at Life Care Center of Las Vegas nursing home. Life Care Center was contracted to administer the professional services necessary to maintain Curtis’s physical and mental health.

While Curtis was under Life Care Center’s care, licensed nurse Ersheila Dawson mistakenly administered to Curtis 120 milligrams of morphine that had been intended for another patient. Nurse Dawson soon realized her mistake and reported it to her supervisor. Under physician’s orders, Life Care Center administered Narcan, another drug, to Curtis to counteract the morphine. Life Care Center decided not to send Curtis to the hospital at this time; instead, it monitored her vital signs.

The following day, Curtis’s daughter, Laura Latrenta, came to Life Care Center to check on her mother. Latrenta found her unresponsive. Curtis was taken to the hospital, where she passed away two days later. Curtis’s death certificate lists morphine intoxication as the cause of death.

The Negligence Suit

Latrenta sued Life Care Center as Curtis’s heir and the representative of the estate. The estate brought claims against Life Care Center: abuse and neglect of an older person, wrongful death, and tortious breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The estate did not assert claims for professional negligence, name Nurse Dawson as a defendant, or file an expert affidavit.

Life Care Center filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that although the estate hadn’t specifically asserted professional negligence claims, that was the essence of the claims. Under Nevada law, any lawsuit for professional negligence must be filed along with an affidavit that supports the allegations in the action, is submitted by a medical expert who practices or practiced in that area, identifies the negligent defendant by name, and specifically sets forth the specific acts or acts of negligence. Nev. Rev. Stat. 41A.071

The district court agreed with Life Care Center’s characterization of the claims as sounding in professional negligence. Because the estate had failed to file a supporting medical expert affidavit, the district court dismissed the case. The estate appealed.

The Nevada Supreme Court

On appeal, the estate argued that it was excused from complying with NRS 41A.071 because its claims against Life Care Center were for ordinary and not professional negligence or that the common knowledge exception applied. Therefore, an expert affidavit was not required.

The Nevada Supreme Court determined that the estate’s complaint was based on two underlying allegations: (1) that Nurse Dawson administered morphine to Curtis that had been prescribed for another patient, and (2) Life Care Center failed to properly monitor and care for Curtis.

The court ruled that the second claim was based on professional negligence, but that that the first claim was a claim for ordinary negligence. The court reasoned that there was no professional judgment in administering the morphine; the nurse had simply given Curtis the wrong drug. The court ruled that the act of administering another patient’s morphine to Curtis was an ordinary negligence claim and therefore the estate was not required to submit an expert affidavit to pursue a negligence claim for this act. This could also be characterized as the “common knowledge” exception to the rule that an expert witness is required to prove professional negligence.

 

Choosing the Right Expert Means Asking the Right Questions

Court Requires Disclosure of Memorandum Discussing Expert’s Methodology

In most cases, a retained expert must prepare a report that states the expert’s opinions, as well as the facts and reasoning that supports those opinions. Yet expert reports do not appear out of the blue. Experts may labor over the report for weeks, treating them as works in progress that evolve over time.

The finished draft of an expert report must be disclosed, as well as certain underlying data. A continuing issue in the law is whether other documents, including prior drafts and communications with an attorney about the report, must also be disclosed. A federal magistrate recently ruled that a memorandum about methodology that an expert wrote for his own use and shared with an attorney is subject to disclosure.

The Work Product Doctrine and Expert Reports

Law students who struggle to stay awake during dry lectures about civil procedure will eventually encounter the work product doctrine. While simple on its face, the work product doctrine compounds the confusion surrounding the obligation to comply with discovery requests.

Under the federal rules, parties may not discover materials that were prepared by or for an attorney in preparation for litigation. However, the rule must be read in light of other discovery rules, including the obligation to disclose reports prepared by experts who will testify at trial. Those reports are plainly prepared for attorneys to assist in litigation, but the reports were both mandated and made discoverable by a 1993 amendment to Rule 26.

The 1993 amendment also allowed discovery of “data or other information” upon which the expert relied in forming opinions. Courts issued confusing and contradictory rulings about whether communications between an attorney and an expert were discoverable as “other information.” Many courts also required disclosure of preliminary drafts of the report in addition to the final report.

Lawyers responded by instructing experts not to produce drafts prior to the final report, for fear that the drafts would include statements that contradict statements made in the final report. Since reports typically evolve over time as experts refine their thinking or incorporate new data, experts expressed frustration that lawyers did not understand how they work.

The rules committee eventually concluded that disclosure of attorney interactions with experts inhibited “collaborative interaction” with experts because attorneys feared disclosure of “their most sensitive and confidential case analyses.” Experts also complained that limiting their communications with the attorneys who hired them impaired their ability to perform high quality work.

Rule 26 was modified in 2010 to address those concerns. The amended rule requires disclosure of “facts or data considered by the witness” in forming expert opinions and “assumptions” that the attorney who retained the expert communicated to the expert if the expert relied upon those assumptions. The changes were meant to exclude disclosure of communications with lawyers that provided theories of the case or the lawyer’s mental impressions. The new rule also provided that the work product privilege protects prior drafts of an expert report from disclosure.

Expert’s Memorandum in Hernandez Lawsuit

Angel Hernandez, a Major League umpire, sued the Commissioner of Baseball for national origin discrimination. Hernandez complained that, despite his seniority, he was not promoted to crew chief and was never selected to umpire the World Series.

Hernandez identified Gregory Baxter as an expert witness and disclosed Baxter’s expert report. The Commissioner took Baxter’s deposition.

When asked if he had reviewed any documents in preparation for the deposition, Baxter testified that he had reviewed a memorandum that he wrote to himself but did not include in the expert report. Baxter testified that the memorandum described his methodology for deciding whether comments about Hernandez were positive or negative and for determining whether statements made in Hernandez’s year-end review were supported by Umpire Evaluation Reports.

Baxter prepared the memorandum weeks after he finished the expert report. He testified that he wrote it because he expected to be deposed about his methodology. He also testified that Hernandez’ attorney did not ask him to prepare the memorandum.

Baxter based the memorandum on notes that he made to himself while preparing the report. He destroyed those notes after he finished the memorandum.

At some point, Baxter gave the Memorandum a title, referring to it as a “supplement” to the “expert report methodology.” He sent the memorandum to Hernandez’ attorney with the subject line “Proposed Supplement to Baxter’s Expert Report.”

The Commissioner moved to compel production of the memorandum. Hernandez resisted on the ground that the memorandum was work product and not discoverable.

Magistrate’s Decision

The memorandum was not an earlier draft of the expert report because it was created after the expert report was finished. Hernandez argued that it was nevertheless a draft of a new or supplemental report.

The magistrate decided that the work product privilege applies to drafts of expert reports that are “required” by Rule 26. No supplemental report was required in this case, so the privilege did not apply to the memorandum. In addition, since no part of the memorandum was actually included in the required report, the memorandum cannot be regarded as a draft of the report that was submitted.

The court also noted that the work product privilege is designed to protect an attorney’s mental impressions, conclusions, opinions, or legal theories, not those of the expert. Since Hernandez’ counsel did not ask Baxter to prepare the memorandum, it did not qualify as attorney work product.

The court rejected the argument that the memorandum was a privileged communication between expert and attorney. While Baxter’s affidavit stated that the memorandum was prepared in anticipation of discussing methodology with Hernandez’s attorney, it was not created as a communication to an attorney.

The fact that Baxter sent the memorandum to an attorney did not “change its character at inception.” To hold otherwise would result in any document becoming privileged merely because the document was sent to an attorney.

Lessons Learned

The court emphasized that an expert’s “notes to himself do not qualify for protection” as work product. Notes are not drafts of a report unless they are intended for later inclusion in the report. Nor are notes made by an expert for the expert’s own purposes protected as communications to an attorney even if they are eventually sent to an attorney.

Experts should be cautioned that if they prepare notes for their own purposes, other than as drafts of portions of an expert report, those notes are likely discoverable. Experts should therefore be careful about preparing notes that they would not want a party in the case to review.

 

Bamboo stick massage

No Expert Testimony Required to Prove Negligent Supervision of Massage Provider Who Sexually Assaulted a Customer

As a general rule, expert testimony is required to prove the liability of a healthcare provider for negligence. That rule is typically enforced in medical malpractice cases alleging that a doctor harmed a patient by breaching a duty of care. The injury victim must use an expert witness to establish the duty of care because ordinary jurors do not usually understand what the medical profession expects a prudent doctor to do when caring for a patient.

An exception to the rule allows medical negligence cases to proceed without an expert witness when the negligence is obvious to ordinary people. A doctor who operates on the wrong knee is a classic example. A jury does not need expert testimony to understand that a doctor should verify which knee is injured before surgery begins.

The Tennessee Supreme Court was recently asked whether the “common knowledge exception” to expert testimony should apply to a case involving negligent hiring and supervision by a spa. Under the facts of the case, the court held that no expert testimony was required to prove liability.

Facts of the Case

Lataisha Jackson went to Gould’s Day Spa & Salon in Cordova for a massage. She alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a masseur.

Jackson alleged that two other customers of Gould’s had made complaints about the masseur’s inappropriate conduct but Gould’s took no action to protect her from similar misconduct. She sued Gould’s for negligently hiring, training, supervising, and retaining the masseur who assaulted her.

Whether or not Jackson’s massage meets an ordinary understanding of “health care,” all the courts that considered the case categorized it as a “health care liability” lawsuit. Tennessee’s Health Care Liability Act applies to lawsuits against any “health care practitioner” if the practitioner must be licensed under Tennessee laws governing “professions of the healing arts.”

Tennessee law deems massage practitioners to be members of a profession of the healing arts who must be licensed. Without discussing whether licensing alone makes a massage provider a “health care practitioner,” the supreme court concluded in a footnote that Gould’s was protected by the Health Care Liability Act.

Certificate of Good Faith

The Act requires plaintiffs to file a “certificate of good faith” with a complaint that alleges the negligence of a health care practitioner. The certificate must state that the plaintiff consulted with an expert who is competent to testify under the Act and that the expert determined the existence of a good faith basis for bringing the lawsuit.

Jackson did not file the certificate because she viewed a lawsuit for negligent hiring and supervision as outside the scope of the Health Care Liability Act. The trial court decided that the Act applied to the negligence claims that Jackson alleged. The court granted summary judgment against her because she did not file a certificate stating that she had consulted with an expert.

The court of appeals, over a dissent, concluded that the standard a spa should follow after receiving a complaint about a massage provider was not within the common knowledge of jurors. The dissenting judge opined that the need to protect disrobed customers from being touched inappropriately by a masseur was not the kind of complex question that could only be answered with expert assistance.

The Common Knowledge Exception in Tennessee

Whether an expert witness was required to prove that Gould’s was negligent turned on the applicability of the common knowledge exception. The exception excuses plaintiffs from providing expert testimony when the alleged misconduct falls within the understanding of lay members of the public. If an applicable standard of care, a breach of that standard, and resulting injury would all be obvious to ordinary people, no expert testimony is required.

The common knowledge exception is widely accepted. The Tennessee Supreme Court filled two pages of its opinion with cases from other jurisdictions that recognize the exception.

While Tennessee’s Health Care Liability Act applies to negligence claims against health care providers, the court decided that consultation with an expert is only necessary in cases that require expert testimony. When the common knowledge exception applies, no certificate of good faith is required. Since the legislature supposedly required the certificate to assure courts that a health care liability claim had arguable merit, requiring the certificate would be pointless when the claim’s merit would be obvious to a lay member of the public.

Tennessee Supreme Court Decision

The court relied on Tennessee precedent in deciding whether a health care provider’s negligence is obvious. The court cited a case involving an X-ray technician who asked a patient to stand on a wobbly stool. The patient fell and was injured. Since telling a patient to stand on unsafe furniture is obviously negligent, no certificate of good faith was required.

In a case with facts that more closely parallel to Jackson’s, a patient at a mental health facility sued the facility for the negligent hiring and training of a security guard who attacked him. While providing security scarcely qualifies as health care, the court decided that the Health Care Liability Act applied to the lawsuit. It concluded, however, that whether the facility negligently breached its duty to protect patients from the assaultive conduct of security guards was a question that a jury could answer without the assistance of expert testimony.

In light of that precedent, the supreme court sensibly decided that the need for expert testimony turns on whether the allegedly negligent conduct “involved the exercise of medical judgment or skill.” When a jury will be called upon to consider whether a doctor used the skill that a reasonable doctor should possess, or made professional judgments involving medical risks and benefits that a reasonable professional would make, the plaintiff must provide expert evidence in support of the negligence claim.

Applying that rule to Jackson’s case, the court decided that expert testimony was not required. The claim that a spa knew or should have known, based on customer complaints, that a masseur might assault customers can be decided without expert evidence. Ordinary jurors have sufficient knowledge and experience to decide whether a spa negligently hired, retained, or supervised an employee who sexually assaulted a customer.

A different result might apply when the plaintiff claims that a massage provider “negligently performed the massage, used improper technique or excessive force, or erred in decision-making as a massage therapist.” In cases involving hiring or retention decisions that do not require professional expertise, however, no expert testimony is required to prove negligence.

 

Georgia

Georgia Court Says No Conflict in Same Firm Expert Affidavit

The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that there is no conflict of interest in using an expert affidavit supporting a complaint written by an attorney who is also a law partner of the filing attorney.

The Personal Injury Case

Plaintiff David Mitchell retained attorney Randall Cade Parian of Parrian Injury Law, LLC to represent him in a personal injury action. Without informing Mitchell, Parian referred the case to Brian Wesley Craig of Craig & Avery, LLC. Attorney Craig filed a personal injury action on Mitchell’s behalf in Fulton County State Court.

Mitchell contacted Parian numerous times in the two years after retaining them. Parian told Mitchell that the case was “chugging along” and never informed him that the case was actually being handled by another law firm.

The defendants in the personal injury case set a deposition for Mitchell and notified Craig, but neither Parian nor Craig notified Mitchell of the deposition. The defendants filed a motion to compel and a motion for sanction, but neither Craig nor Parian contacted Mitchell. As a result of the motions, Mitchell’s case was dismissed with prejudice.

When Mitchell learned of the dismissal, he reviewed the complaint that Craig had filed on his behalf. Mitchell saw that the allegations had little resemblance to the facts of his case, leading him to conclude that Craig had simply used a complaint his firm had filed in a different case and substituted Mitchell as the plaintiff.

The Malpractice Action

Mitchell retained attorney William Ney to represent him in a legal malpractice action against Parian and Craig. Ney filed a complaint that was supported by the affidavit of Jacob Rhein, an attorney who is licensed to practice law in Georgia. In his affidavit, Rhein indicated that he was familiar with the standard of care for Georgia attorneys and that it was his opinion that Parian and Craig had breached that standard of care. The day after Rhein executed his affidavit, he and Ney formed a law firm together, Ney Rhein, LLC.

Parian and Craig filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that because Rhein was a member of Ney’s law firm, he was not competent to provide the affidavit that was required to support a legal malpractice action. Following a hearing, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss. The court ruled that there was “an inherent conflict between Rhein making the affidavit as a witness and being a member of the law firm” that represented Mitchell.

The Appeal

Mitchell appealed the trial court’s ruling. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals, First Division, looked to the language of the statutory requirement. OCGA § 9-11-9.1 provides, in relevant part, that to assert a claim for legal malpractice, the plaintiff is “required to file with the complaint an affidavit of an expert competent to testify, which affidavit shall set forth specifically at least one negligent act or omission claimed to exist and the factual basis for each such Claim.”

The Georgia Court of Appeals found that Rhein met the statutory requirements for an expert witness as set forth in OCGA § 24-7-702. The court further found that Rhein’s status as Ney’s law partner affected Rhein’s qualifications as an expert witness. Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes authored the opinion with the concurrence of Judges Elizabeth Gobeil and John Pipkin III.

Attorney for the plaintiff William Ney said of the ruling, “It just confirms what the ethics rules are: That members of the same firm can provide pretrial affidavits on behalf of each other’s clients and still comply with [the statute].” Whether a member of the firm could testify at trial, as opposed to filing a pretrial affidavit attesting to the claim’s legal merit, was not a question the court needed to answer.

 

Lawyer Allowed to Testify as Expert Witness in Fraud Prosecution

Lawyers (some more than others) are experts in the law, but they rarely testify as expert witnesses. Legal malpractice cases, in which expert testimony is needed to establish a lawyer’s standard of care, provide one of the few opportunities for a lawyer to testify as an expert.

But lawyers in malpractice cases do not explain the law to juries. Rather, they explain the actions a prudent lawyer should take or avoid in light of prevailing professional standards.

In most cases, lawyers may not testify as experts on the law. The only expert who can explain the law to the jury is the presiding judge. The judge provides that explanation through jury instructions, not testimony.

A federal criminal case spotlights an unusual instance in which a lawyer was allowed to explain fiduciary duties imposed by state law, the breach of which was relevant to a federal prosecution for fraud. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected an appellate challenge to the admission of that expert testimony.

Facts of the Case

Renee Tartaglione was charged with 53 crimes related to defrauding a community clinic and for failing to report income earned from the fraudulent acts. Tartaglione, described in the press as a “member of a longtime Philadelphia political dynasty,” was the president of the board of the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that Tartaglione caused the nonprofit clinic to pay exorbitant rent for buildings that she and her husband controlled. Prosecutors offered evidence that she used the rent proceeds to remodel her own home and to fund her lifestyle.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Tartaglione was responsible for a bogus drug treatment program aimed at low income people. The crimes were charged in federal court because the clinic primarily served Medicaid recipients.

The jury convicted Taraglione after a nineteen-day trial. Noting that Taraglione had betrayed the public trust by misappropriating money from a taxpayer-funded program, the judge sentenced Taraglione to 82 months in prison. She appealed, challenging the prosecution’s use of a lawyer as an expert witness.

Expert Testimony Regarding Non-Governing Law

The prosecution called the Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Mark Pacella, as an expert witness. While a prosecutor who testifies for another prosecutor might have an inherent bias, the question of bias is usually for a jury to consider. Potential bias, by itself, does not typically disqualify expert witnesses, although on rare occasions judges have excluded experts because of their financial interest in the case or because their history of extreme bias renders their opinions unreliable.

Pacella “explained the legal and regulatory framework for Pennsylvania charitable nonprofit corporations, including the fiduciary duties imposed on board members and directors of such organizations.” Since the judge could have explained fiduciary duties in jury instructions, the question before the appellate court was whether the expert testimony violated the rule that lawyers cannot generally testify as experts in the law.

While recognizing the general rule, the court noted that an exception permits legal experts to testify about “non-governing law” if the testimony will assist the jury. The exception usually applies to the law of a foreign country.

Rule 26.1 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure allows a court to consider relevant testimony about foreign law. At least one legal scholar has bemoaned the use of legal experts to testify about domestic law that a trial judge is fully capable of understanding and explaining.

The appellate court nevertheless concluded that a “non-governing law” exception to the general rule covers “applicable legal duties, especially when those non-governing laws help explain fraudulent intent.” Pacella explained the clinic’s Articles of Incorporation and the legal distinction between a for-profit and a charitable nonprofit corporation. The court decided that the testimony did not cover governing law.

Expert Testimony Regarding Fiduciary Duties

More troubling was Pacella’s testimony about the “fiduciary duties of care and loyalty applicable to directors and officers of such organizations under Pennsylvania law.” The court decided that those duties were not “governing law” because they arose under Pennsylvania law and Tartaglione was not charged with violating Pennsylvania law. The court thought it was noteworthy that Pacella testified that Pennsylvania does not criminalize the breach of a fiduciary duty.

The court’s analysis is questionable. Since prosecutors used Pacella’s testimony to argue that a breach of state law fiduciary duties evidenced a violation of federal law, Pennsylvania law “governed” the very conduct that prosecutors deemed fraudulent.

It is difficult to understand the relevance of Pacella’s testimony if not to define legal duties that governed Tartaglione, the breach of which gave rise, at least in part, to federal charges. The court acknowledged that the testimony was offered to support the argument that Tartaglione’s breach of a governing fiduciary duty proved her intent to commit fraud.

The court cited no on-point precedent, probably because most trial judges do not allow prosecutors to call another prosecutor as an expert witness to bolster their case. The court likened Pacella’s testimony to background evidence about scientific principles, but the issue was whether a lawyer can be called as an expert to explain the law, not whether a scientist can be called as an expert to explain science. If the court is the only expert on the law, it is difficult to understand why the explanation of Pennsylvania law governing Tartaglione’s fiduciary duties should not have come from the court rather than an expert witness.