Expert Allowed to Testify About Standard of Care Despite His Belief that the Standard Is Mythical

Written on Monday, January 11th, 2021 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: Expert Opinions, Research & Trends, Working with Experts

Pamela Scholl underwent lumbar fusion surgery in Indiana. Scholl alleged that the surgeon, Dr. Mohammed Majd, placed a screw too close to an iliac artery, causing nerve damage. She later had a second corrective surgery.

Scholl sued Dr. Majd for malpractice. Indiana law requires complaints of medical malpractice to be submitted to a medical review panel. The medical and insurance industries view those panels as discouraging malpractice lawsuits that have no merit. Plaintiffs’ lawyers regard panel members as having a pro-doctor bias and typically view them as an obstacle that adds a layer of delay and expense that is meant to benefit doctors and their insurers.

The panel concluded that Dr. Majd did not breach the applicable standard of care. Scholl then filed suit. She relied on the expert testimony of Dr. Robert Sexton to prove her claim.

After Scholl rested her case, Dr. Majd moved to dismiss on the ground that Dr. Sexton’s testimony failed to establish that Dr. Sexton was familiar with the applicable standard of care. That motion was based on Dr. Sexton’s testimony that the standard of care is whatever a physician thinks it is. Scholl appealed from the trial court’s decision to grant that motion.

Dr. Sexton’s Testimony

Dr. Sexton is a board-eligible neurosurgeon who has performed more than 12,000 spine surgeries during his career, including 150 fusions. Dr. Sexton retired from surgical practice but maintains an active medical license and complies with continuing medical education requirements.

A medical review panel determined that Dr. Majd’s surgery did not fall below the standard of care. Dr. Sexton testified that he disagreed with that conclusion. When he was asked about the panel’s findings, Dr. Sexton referred to the panel’s reliance on a “mythical” standard of care.

Dr. Sexton explained that there is no published standard of care. The review panel defined the standard of care generically as “what a reasonably skilled doctor . . . would do in a given situation.” Dr. Sexton suggested that the generic definition does not identify specific things a doctor should do but leaves it up to each doctor to invent his or her own standard of care.

Dr. Sexton testified that Dr. Majd’s surgery fell below the standard of care because his workup of Scholl before the surgery was “sparse.” He opined that a prudent spine surgeon would have performed a bone density test before deciding whether a spinal fusion was appropriate. He also testified that using a spinal fusion to correct Scholl’s condition as “very controversial.”

Dr. Sexton concluded that placing a screw too close to Scholl’s iliac artery caused her injury. He testified that the standard of care required a surgeon in Dr. Majd’s position to do one of two things: perform a bone graft without using screws or perform a decompressive laminectomy as an alternative to spinal fusion.

When he was asked whether Dr. Majd’s decision to perform a spinal fusion using screws fell below the standard of care, Dr. Sexton replied, “Based on the outcome, yes, I think it was.” On cross-examination, Dr. Sexton repeated that “there is no such thing as a standard of care except what the individual doctor thinks it is.”

After Scholl rested her case, Dr. Majd moved for judgment on the basis that Dr. Sexton did not demonstrate a familiarity with the applicable standard of care. The court granted Dr. Majd’s motion. Scholl appealed.

Appellate Analysis

Indiana follows the customary rule that a medical standard of care and its breach must be established by an expert opinion. The question before the court was whether Dr. Sexton’s opinion adequately conveyed the standard of care to the jury.

The court noted that Dr. Sexton quoted a doctor from the medical review panel who stated that the standard of care is “what a reasonably skilled doctor with reasonably skilled training would do in a given situation.” That is a correct paraphrasing of the standard of care. The fact that Dr. Sexton referred to it demonstrated his familiarity with the standard. His criticism that the standard is mythical in the abstract did not alter his understanding of the standard.

As the court noted, Dr. Sexton explained his reference to the “mythical” standard by noting that no textbook or other authoritative source clearly defines how a spinal surgeon should have treated Scholl’s condition. The court viewed his testimony as explaining that the standard of care was open to interpretation, as is often the case in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Of course, the abstract standard — doctors have a duty to do what reasonably skilled doctors would do — says nothing about what reasonably skilled doctors would do in a given situation. Dr. Sexton filled that gap by testifying that a prudent spine surgeon should perform a bone density test before surgery. He also testified that the standard of care required Dr. Majd to perform a laminectomy rather than a fusion with hardware, a procedure that would have eliminated the risk of causing the injury that resulted from placing a screw too close to the iliac artery.

Dr. Sexton’s extensive history as a spinal surgeon qualified him to express opinions about the applicable standard of care and its breach. The court held that Dr. Sexton’s characterization of the standard of review as “mythical” was “imprecise,” but those comments did not reveal a lack of understanding of the standard of care. The trial court accordingly erred by dismissing the lawsuit rather than submitting it to the jury.

Lessons Learned

The intersection of law and medicine can lead to collisions. Doctors think in terms of medical concepts. The standard of care is a legal concept. Dr. Sexton viewed the standard of care as “whatever a doctor thinks it is” because the medical panel used the language of the law to describe the standard.

What a reasonable doctor would do in a given situation is intended to be an objective standard but differing opinions of whether a doctor’s actions were “reasonable” reveal its subjective nature. Dr. Sexton identified the subjective nature of the standard of care when he defined the standard as whatever “a doctor thinks it is.”

Scholl’s case ended with a dismissal and an appeal because Dr. Sexton referred to the standard of care as “mythical.” That testimony honestly identified the difficulty of defining a precise standard that has not been identified in medical texts. Unfortunately, the testimony was also problematic. An expert’s reference to a legal standard as “mythical” is likely to wave a red flag in front of opposing counsel.

The case illustrates the need for plaintiffs’ lawyers to take the time to explain legal standards to expert witnesses and to caution experts not to editorialize about those standards. How the expert feels about a legal standard has no bearing on the case. The appeal could have been avoided if Dr. Sexton had simply testified that “the standard of care is what a reasonable spinal surgeon would do and, in my opinion, a reasonable spinal surgeon would have done the following.”

 

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

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