Terrebonne Medical Malpractice Suit Reaffirms Trial Court’s Role in Qualifying Expert Witnesses

As we have examined in several prior blog posts, expert testimony plays a very important part in the resolution of many tort suits, especially those involving medical malpractice claims. Because the details of medical procedures can add considerable complexity to a case, expert witnesses are commonly relied on by both plaintiffs and defendants to help the jury better understand the facts. The input of experts is essential to the jury’s analysis of whether a doctor’s conduct which caused the plaintiff’s harm met the applicable standard of care; the recent case of Verdin v. Hospital Service District No. 1 of the Parish of Terrebonne, No. 2010 CA 0456 (La. Ct. App. 1st Cir. 2010), offers a look at the considerations a court may give when qualifying a witness as an expert.

On February 27, 2002, Don Verdin underwent back surgery at the Terrebonne General Medical Center to repair a herniated disc. Dr. Henry Haydel, an orthopedic surgeon, performed the procedure. During the surgery, Dr. Haydel’s tool punctured an artery, which required emergency surgery to repair. It was also discovered that Verdin’s bowel had been punctured, which necessitated yet another surgery to correct. Following these procedures, Verdin developed a severe infection that required an extended hospital stay, during which he experienced a number of other complications prior to his release from the hospital nearly a month later. Verdin filed a medical malpractice complaint with the Louisiana Patient’s Compensation Fund against Dr. Haydel, alleging that Dr. Haydel breached the standard of care in performing the back surgery and failed to properly treat the injuries that occurred during the surgery. Verdin also included similar claims against the surgeons who repaired the artery and bowel perforations. The Medical Review Panel found that none of the doctors who treated Verdin failed to meet the applicable standard of care as charged in the complaint. Nevertheless, Verdin filed a medical malpractice suit against Dr. Haydel in June of 2005, alleging the same claims as were denied by the Review Panel. Following a four-day trial, during which numerous expert witnesses testified, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Dr. Haydel, finding that he did not breach the standard of care in his treatment of Verdin. Verdin then filed an appeal in which he attacked the jury verdict as manifestly erroneous.

Verdin’s primary enumeration of error centered on the expert testimony of Dr. Chad Millet, who was called as a witness by Dr. Haydel during the trial. Verdin objected to Dr. Millet’s qualifications, arguing that he did not have the necessary knowledge to qualify as an expert witness because he had not performed spine surgery in the six years prior to Verdin’s procedure in 2002. Verdin further asserted that because Dr. Millet had not taken any continuing medical education courses in the area of spine surgery during that time, he was not qualified to testify regarding the surgical procedure employed by Dr. Haydel. In reviewing the trial court’s decision to nevertheless accept Dr. Millet as an expert in the field of orthopedic surgery, the court reviewed La. R.S. 9:2794(D)(l)(b) and (c). These provisions require that in order to qualify as an expert witness, a physician must have knowledge of accepted standards of medical care for the treatment involved in the claim, and that the physician must be qualified on the basis of training to offer an expert opinion regarding those accepted standards of medical care. The court also reaffirmed the long-standing view “trial courts have great discretion in determining the qualifications of experts and the effect and weight to be given to expert testimony. In the absence of a clear abuse of this discretion, [appellate courts] will not disturb a trial court’s ruling on the qualification of a witness.” See Bradbury v. Thomas, 757 So.2d 666, 673 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1999). “It is well settled,” noted the court, “that the law does not require an expert to be actively practicing in the particular specialty about which he or she will testify.” Instead, “the court need only be satisfied that the witness is qualified to give testimony regarding the applicable standard of care. Bradbury, 757 So.2d at 674.

In reviewing the trial record, the court took notice that Dr. Millet is a board certified orthopedic surgeon who performed 100-150 lumbar procedures while in private practice from 1990 through 1996. Although Dr. Millet stopped performing lumbar procedures in 1996 to focus on joint replacement surgeries, he took continuing medical education courses in all of the subspecialties of orthopedics, including spinal surgery, and was recertified as an orthopedic specialist in 2002. The court concluded that, “under these circumstances, we find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Dr. Millet possessed the requisite knowledge and experience to testify as an expert in orthopedic surgery and render an opinion on whether Dr. Haydel breached the standard of care.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s verdict and assessed all costs to Verdin.

While Mr. Verdin’s experience in the hospital was unquestionably difficult and unpleasant, this case demonstrates that not every bad medical outcome indicates malpractice. A patient who has suffered a troubling experience while under the care of a doctor should consult a knowledgeable attorney before rushing to file suit to ensure he or she has a valid negligence claim.

If you have been injured by a physician, call the Berniard Law Firm today toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you analyze your claim and obtain the recovery you deserve.