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Medical Malpractice and Nurses Serving on Medical Review Panels

Curtis v. Miller’s Health Systems (Ind. Ct. App. Aug. 15, 2012)

In this medical malpractice case, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the defendant healthcare provider and reached an important conclusion regarding a nurse’s ability to offer expert opinion on the standard of care in malpractice suits.

Prior decisions of the Court of Appeals held that nurses were qualified to serve on medical review panels, but were not qualified to testify as to medical causation under Indiana Rule of Evidence 702. See Nasser v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Sys., 926 N.E.2d 43 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010); Clarian Health Partners, Inc. v. Wagler, 925 N.E.2d 388 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), Long v. MethodistHosp. of Indiana, Inc., 699 N.E.2d 1164 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998), Stryczek v. The Methodist Hosps, 694 N.E.2d 1186 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998), In this case, the Court of Appeals held that these cases were limited to their facts and that no blanket rule prohibits a nurse from offering expert opinions on whether a healthcare provider breached the standard of care or caused an injury. The Court explained that whether a nurse would qualify in a particular case would turn on the nurse’s experience and expertise relative to the factual circumstances at issue.

The Court of Appeals went on to find that in this particular case, the plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of establishing the nurse’s qualifications and that the defendant was therefore entitled to summary judgment.

Although this decision is a departure from prior Court of Appeals decisions dealing with nurses’ ability to offer expert medical causation testimony, the decision is consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent approach to medical expert testimony. In fact, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bennett v. Richmond, 960 N.E.2d 782 (Ind. 2012), handed down in January of 2012, implicitly called into question the line of Court of Appeals decisions precluding nurses from offering expert testimony. The Bennett court held that psychologists were not excluded, per se, from offering expert medical causation testimony. The Bennett court dropped a footnote stating:
We note that this approach differs from the per se exclusion by the Court of Appeals of nurses' testimony in medical malpractice cases on the medical cause of injuries.
Id.at 786.

Although the Court of Appeals in Curtis did not cite the Bennett decision, the Curtis court’s approach is certainly consistent with Bennett. Taken together, Curtis and Bennett could foreshadow the end to any per se exclusionary rules regarding expert testimony. For better or worse, counsel should be prepared to argue the qualifications of any person designated as an expert, even if that person lacks the title generally associated with a particular area of testimony.

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