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Arizona Supreme Court Rules on Medical Malpractice Expert Witnesses

Medical malpractice lawsuits help incentivize healthcare providers to adhere to the highest standards of safety. When a doctor, nurse, or some other health care professional makes a harmful mistake, the injured patient or the family of a patient who is killed may hold the responsible parties accountable in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

An important aspect of medical malpractice lawsuits is expert testimony. A medical expert can explain the technical details of what went wrong and describe how the treating physician may have slipped below the applicable standard of care.

Under Arizona Revised Statue Section 12-2604, a plaintiff bringing a medical malpractice lawsuit in the state may only use expert testimony to establish the appropriate standard of care if the testifying expert is from the same medical specialty as the doctor being sued. While this requirement is meant to help ensure the integrity of medical malpractice evidence, it can create significant barriers for injured patients seeking justice; when doctors in niche specialties are sued over a medical error, it can be very difficult to find an expert with similar qualifications who will testify on the plaintiff’s behalf.

Every plaintiff has a constitutional right to access to the courts. Since Section 12-2604 can make is so hard for some plaintiffs to commence with a lawsuit, does it violate this right? In a recent decision, the Arizona Supreme Court sought to answer this question.

Statute Requiring Expert to Share Exact Specialty as Doctor Being Sued Is Constitutional

The case, Baker v. University Physicians Healthcare et al., concerned a seventeen-year-old girl who was treated for blood clots by a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist. The girl eventually died, and her father sued the treating physician and her employers for wrongful death.

To establish the standard of care owed by the treating physician, the girl’s father called a doctor certified in hematology and medical oncology.

However, under Section 12-2604, a medical expert testifying as to the standard of care must share the exact specialty as the doctor being sued. Since the doctor being sued specialized in pediatric hematology-oncology and the expert witness was certified in hematology-oncology (with no designation as a pediatric specialist), the expert was not qualified to establish the standard of care under Arizona law.

What’s more, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Section 12-2604 is not unconstitutional. Simply making it more difficult for plaintiffs to find qualified experts to testify as to the standard of care owed does not bar medical malpractice suits, and thus Section 12-2604 does not run afoul of the constitutional guarantee of access to the courts.

What Does the Case Mean for Your Medical Malpractice Claim?

If you or a loved one has been harmed by a medical error, Baker v. University Physicians Healthcare et al. has important implications for your malpractice claim. The case makes it inescapably clear that you need an expert with identical specialty designations as the doctor being sued in order to properly establish the standard of care.

If your life has been impacted by a medical error, talk to an experienced Arizona medical malpractice attorney today. Your attorney can help ensure you find the right expert, that your case will be allowed to proceed, and that you are able to collect the just compensation to which you are entitled.

Date: July 12, 2014

Medical Malpractice

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