Court of Appeals Holds that Trial Court Erred in Excluding Expert Testimony in Medical Malpractice Action

On November 7, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Perkins v. Hansen, No. 11-CV-1540, slip op. (D.C. Nov. 7, 2013), a medical malpractice case in which it held that the trial court erred in excluding expert testimony on causation. Id. at 1-2.

By way of background, “[a]ppellant brought a medical malpractice suit against appellees alleging that they failed to timely recognize that [decedent] had severe liver failure and that if she had been admitted sooner to . . . [a] facility that performed [liver] transplants, she would have received a liver transplant and survived.” Id. at 3-4 (footnote and internal quotation marks omitted). At trial, “appellant proffered that [his designated expert, a physician,] would offer expert testimony on causation.” Id. at 4. “Appellees objected to [the] testimony because [the expert] did not review [certain] data on the mean and median wait times for organ transplants” and therefore “did not have an adequate foundation for his opinion.” Id. The trial court “sustained the objection,” “excluded [the expert’s] testimony on causation,” and then directed a verdict for appellees on the grounds that appellant could not establish causation. Id. This appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis of the trial court’s decision by explaining the applicable law. Id. at 5-6. It stated that, in general, “the admission of expert testimony is guided by the three Dyas factors.” Id. at 6 (footnote omitted; citing Dyas v. United States, 376 A.2d 827 (D.C. 1977)). The second factor (which was the only factor at issue) “requires that the witness have ‘sufficient skill, knowledge, or experience in [his] field or calling as to make it appear that his opinion or inference will probably aid the trier in his search for truth.'” Id. (emphasis in original; quoting Dyas, 376 A.2d at 832). “Implicit in that requirement is that the expert have a ‘reliable basis for his theory’ steeped in ‘fact or adequate data,’ as opposed to offering ‘a mere guess or conjecture.'” Id. (brackets omitted; quoting Haidak v. Corso, 841 A.2d 316, 327 (D.C. 2004)).

Applying the above-stated principles, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in excluding the expert’s testimony on causation. Id. at 6-12. It explained that “[i]t is well established that a physician’s experience may provide a reliable basis for his or her expert opinion” and “there is no question that [the] skill, knowledge, and experience [of the appellant’s expert] provided a reliable foundation to testify about the likelihood that [decedent] would have received a liver transplant and survived if she had been admitted to a transplant facility sooner.” Id. at 6-7 (footnote omitted). The Court of Appeals described the expert’s extensive qualifications relating to the subject of liver transplants, and stated that the appellees did not dispute that he had “impressive credentials.” Id. at 7-8.

Nonetheless, appellants argued that the expert’s testimony on causation was properly excluded because the expert did not review certain data regarding the wait times for organ transplants. Id. at 8-9. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument because the “argument directly conflicts with Snyder, in which [the Court of Appeals] expressly rejected the argument that a doctor’s ‘experience alone would not qualify him to offer causation testimony.'” Id. at 9 (brackets and ellipse omitted; quoting Snyder v. George Washington Univ., 890 A.2d 237, 244 (D.C. 2006)). It further stated that the organ transplant data was a “red herring” because the data was relevant to the weight to be given to the expert’s testimony, and not to the admissibility of the testimony. Id. at 9. Furthermore, the expert was not required to opine with complete certainty that the decedent would have received a liver transplant but for the appellees’ negligence. Id. at 10.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for a new trial.