Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Do as I Say (Not as I Do): Tennessee's Appellate Standard of Review of Expert Witness Qualifications in Health Care Liability Actions

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Do as I Say (Not as I Do): Tennessee's Appellate Standard of Review of Expert Witness Qualifications in Health Care Liability Actions

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Nearly every state requires expert medical testimony to establish causation in a health care liability action.1 Over the past century, states have grappled with the appropriate manner for determining the standard of care a defendant health care provider must uphold, namely arguing over whether the law should hold a health care provider to his or her local standard of care or, instead, to a national standard of care.2 In the late 19th century, United States courts established the "locality" standard of care. This standard dictated that medical providers must adhere to the standard of care commonly exercised in their local community and exempted them from adherence to medical practices prevalent in communities outside the defendant's community ("the locality rule").3

In states adhering to the locality rule, the additional expertise hurdles that prevent plaintiffs from finding a qualified expert witness also aid defendants in their efforts to quash the plaintiff's case. A plaintiffpursuing a medical negligence case must provide expert testimony to establish the applicable standard of care.4 Thus, if the defendant demonstrates that the plaintiff's expert witness does not meet the state's locality-rule requirements, the court will likely dismiss the case with prejudice.5 As summary judgment prevents plaintiffs from pursuing their cases, they regularly appeal orders granting summary judgment to defendants. Accordingly, the standard of review a state appellate court employs may substantially affect a plaintiff's ability to pursue a health care liability action. This Note explores the need to use a de novo review of all issues pertaining to orders granting summary judgment that follow a court's exclusion of expert testimony in a health care liability action.

In Shipley v. Williams,6 a health care liability action, the Tennessee Supreme Court assessed Tennessee's appellate standards of review for orders granting summary judgment that result from the exclusion of expert medical testimony. After suffering a debilitating stroke, the plaintifffiled a medical negligence action against the defendant doctor.7 The plaintiffalleged that the defendant failed to provide her with proper post-surgical care, and she provided two expert witnesses to testify on her behalf regarding the standard of care applicable to the defendant.8 The trial court granted the defendant's motion to disqualify both of Mrs. Shipley's medical experts, holding that the experts' testimonies would not substantially assist the trier of fact because it failed to meet the requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-115.9 A Tennessee plaintiffmust provide medical expert testimony to support a medical negligence claim; therefore, this disqualification obviated the need for a trial.10 The Tennessee Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the trial court's decision to disqualify the expert witnesses' testimony, which Mrs. Shipley appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.11

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a trial judge's summary judgment determination regarding an expert's compliance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-115(a) warrants de novo review because it regards the negligence elements that comprise the plaintiff's burden of proof.12 The Shipley court also noted, however, that a trial court's ruling regarding section 29-26-115(b) is an evidentiary ruling pertaining to the expert witness's competence to testify.13 Therefore, the Shipley court held that section 29-26-115(b) acts to supplement an expert's admissibilityrequirements under Tennessee Rules of Evidence 702 and 703 and, aswith all evidentiary determinations, appellate courts should review itunder an abuse-of-discretion standard.14 Finally, the Shipley courtexplained that a trial court's failure to review an expert witness'stestimony in the light most favorable to the nonmoving partyconstitutes reversible error.15 To determine whether a plaintiff's expertmedical testimony satisfies the requirements of sections 29-26-115(a)and (b), however, the trial court must rely almost exclusively on theexpert witness's testimony. …

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