A Pittsburgh woman who lost a malpractice lawsuit has been granted a new trial because a lower court erred by restricting medical expert testimony that would have bolstered her case. According to a Pennsylvania Superior Court, the plaintiff had a right to present the full testimony of a medical diagnosis expert witness who was called to help her explain why a Pittsburgh area hospital was negligent in responding to her symptoms.
Pittsburgh Woman Files Medical Malpractice Suit for Failure to Diagnose Breast Cancer
In 2009, Maria Heddleston gave birth to a child at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and, as part of her care, received a breast-feeding consultation which included instructions about how to operate a breast pump machine. During the consultation and training, Heddleston complained of severe breast pain when she pumped, but this was not investigated by the attending nurses or physicians at the facility. Maria was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and she sued the Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates of Pittsburgh Inc. and other individual defendants for failing to run diagnostic tests which would have given her an earlier cancer diagnosis.
During trial, Heddleston claimed that by delaying the diagnosis almost a full year, her risk of death increased. After a civil trial in Pittsburgh, a jury returned a verdict 10 – 2 in favor of the defendants, finding that the Heddlestons had failed to prove medical malpractice. On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trail court made an error when the judge disallowed expert witness testimony which would have affirmed the Heddleston’s argument that a diagnostic test run in 2009 would’ve caught the breast cancer early.
Judge Grants New Trial with Instructions to Include Expert Witness
During the initial trial, the plaintiffs called Dr. Barry Singer as a medical expert witness, and as part of his testimony was asked if diagnostic testing in 2009 would have caught Maria Heddleston’s cancerous tumor. Before Dr. Singer could answer, defense counsel objected, arguing that the expert testimony should have been restricted to facts about the standard of care expected by gynecologists and not the doctor’s opinion about the results of a hypothetical diagnostic test. The trial judge agreed, and the defense successfully argued during closing arguments that the plaintiffs could not prove a 2009 diagnostic test would’ve caught the cancer.
On appeal, Judge Mary Jane Bowes disagreed with the trial court, and held that Dr. Singer’s expert testimony regarding the outcome of a 2009 diagnostic test would speak to gynecological standard of care. According to Judge Bowes, Dr. Singer’s testimony that a 2009 diagnostic test on Maria Heddleston would’ve identified early stages of breast cancer suggest a failed duty to live up to the standard of care required by treating gynecologists who offer breast feeding consultations. Dr. Singer did not state during his testimony that such tests are required or even standard, but his information regarding the result of a test would, according to Bowes, give jurors the opportunity to better evaluate the level of medical care Heddleston should have received.
Pittsburgh Woman gets Second Chance at a Medical Malpractice Trial with Expert
Judge Bowes concluded that the Heddlestons deserved a new trial because of the trial judge’s failure to allow the plaintiff’s medical expert witness to theorize on the results of a 2009 cancer diagnostic test which was not conducted. This ruling demonstrates the fine line that medical malpractice experts walk between a permissible explanation about standard of care practices which medical professionals are expected to follow and impermissible testimony which opines about whether or not that standard has been met.
Medical expert witnesses like Dr. Singer in this case are typically allowed to discuss the standard of care, and then give their expert opinion on the medical care a plaintiff actually received. It is up to the jury to compare the expected standard of care with the actual care a patient received in order to issue a verdict. In this case, the appellate judge determined that a medical expert’s opinion the result of an diagnostic test which was not run did not translate to his opinion on the quality of the care the plaintiff received, and was therefore permissible expert testimony.