A California appeals court has affirmed the decision of a trial court in a case where the patient sued a doctor for malpractice, but was unable to present testimony from the doctor who successfully treated her because the doctor was not designated as an expert witness.
The Unsuccessful Treatment
From 2014 to 2016, Lyudmila Lerner was treated by Stanley Cowen, M.D. for a wound on her leg. During the time Lerner was treated by Dr. Cowen, her wound grew in size and her discomfort increased.
In March 2016, Lerner suffered heavy bleeding from the wound. She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital for an emergency procedure. Dr. Suzuki treated Lerner at Cedars-Sinai. Dr. Suzuki’s treatment resulted in fast and positive results. Lerner was discharged from the hospital within two weeks and has not suffered a relapse since.
Trial Court Proceedings
In October 2016, Lerner filed a complaint against Dr. Cowen. Lerner argued that Dr. Cowen’s “breach of the applicable standard of medical care” exacerbated her wound and increased her pain and suffering during the time of treatment. The case was scheduled for trial on January 14, 2019.
Dr. Cowen filed a motion in limine, arguing that the court should exclude the proposed testimony of Dr. Suzuki because he was an undesignated expert witness. Dr. Cowen argued that the opinion of a physician who was not designated as an expert is irrelevant in a medical malpractice action. Dr. Cowen pointed out that Lerner had taken the deposition of Dr. Suzuki without providing him with any notice. Because of her failure to properly provide notice, Dr. Cowen was unable to attend or participate in the deposition in any way.
Dr. Cowen also noted that Lerner served an expert designation in December 2017 which listed one retained expert and one non-retained expert. This expert designation did not list Dr. Suzuki as either a retained or non-retained witness. However, at the time of the trial, she indicated that she intended to call Dr. Suzuki as a witness at trial.
Lerner filed an opposition to Dr. Cowen’s motion in limine, arguing that as a treating physician, Dr. Suzuki “was permitted to testify to his understanding of the standards of medical care and their application to the plaintiff’s treatment.” Lerner also argued that Dr. Cowen should have been aware of Dr. Suzuki’s role as a treating physician and had been given a copy of the deposition.
The trial court heard argument on the issue and granted Dr. Cowen’s motion in limine, preventing Dr. Suzuki from testifying at trial. The jury returned a defense verdict.
Lerner appealed. On appeal, she argued that the trial court had abused its discretion in excluding the testimony of Dr. Suzuki. The California Court of Appeals for the Second District reviewed the relevant case law as to whether a treating physician must be designated as an expert in order to testify.
The court of appeals determined that the trial court was correct. It wrote, “testimony from a treating physician such as Dr. Suzuki is not admissible in a medical malpractice trial unless the physician is designated as an expert. (County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 1446, 1455 (County of LA).) Like other expert witnesses, treating physicians have knowledge ‘sufficiently beyond common experience,’ and their testimony is ‘[b]ased on matter (including . . . special knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education) . . . that is of a type that reasonably may be relied upon by an expert in forming an opinion upon the subject to which his testimony relates.’ (Evid. Code, § 801, subds. (a), (b).)”
The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court and awarded Dr. Cowen the costs of his appeal.