The principles of the practice of medicine and the standards of care that apply to health care professionals are not something those of us who work outside the profession are qualified to speak about in a court of law. Because the issues that come up in malpractice cases can involve very specific knowledge of the principles of medicine, expert witnesses are required to show which standards of care apply in cases of medical malpractice.
Something our readers are probably not aware of is that the qualifications for an expert witness vary according to the circumstances of the case. Under Michigan law, there are several potential scenarios, each involving different qualifications for expert witnesses. Here we’ll look briefly at the general principles which come out of state case law.
Though the law in this area can be complicated and is subject to change, it is worth mentioning its general outlines. First of all, the qualifications of expert witnesses must match what is called the “most relevant specialty” of the defendant physician. This term designates the specialty in which the defendant physician was practicing at the time the malpractice allegedly occurred. Importantly, if the defendant physician has a subspecialty, the “most relevant specialty” may be that subspecialty, regardless of the defendant physician’s board certification.
Another Michigan law governing expert witnesses is that, in order to testify against a physician in training, the expert has to demonstrate a knowledge of the resident’s most relevant specialty at the level of the resident’s expected capabilities. This standard, therefore, allows for an expert witness who is less experienced in a given specialty to testify in court as long as his or her knowledge matches the resident’s expected level of knowledge.
In selecting expert witnesses to establish or call into question an asserted standard of care, it is critical to select a physician whose testimony will stand up in court. This isn’t something that most patients are able to do on their own. In addition, the laws governing medical malpractice can and do change from time to time, which makes it all the more important to work with an experienced medical malpractice attorney.
Source: Michigan Bar Association, “Expert Witness Standards in a Medical Malpractice Action,” Cheryl A. Cardelli and Erik K. Warsow, Feb. 2009.