Expert opinion can be based on opinions presented by other medical personnel

LARRY D. JOHNSON, Plaintiff, v. STELLA-JONES CORPORATION, Defendant

2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19185

Though it is generally desirable that experts base their opinion on first hand information or their own examination, Rule 703 of the Federal Rule of Evidence also allows them to base their opinion on information received outside of the court as long as there is a considerable chance of acceptability of the said information by other experts in the said field. A good expert opinion is also, usually characterized by its reliance on objective evidence, on consideration of proper facts, on the use of a tried and tested methodology and where such theory enjoys general acceptance in the scientific community.

The defendant requested for the exclusion of the expert testimony on causation at the trial stage that was given by Dr. Belinda Merritt.  The defendant, Stella-Jones Corporation (the company) owned a wood treatment facility in Fulton County, Kentucky. On August 24, 2012 he had got the plaintiff, Larry D. Johnson to deliver crossties at his facility. While the crossties were being taken down a heap of lumber fell on Johnson’s right hip and foot and hurt him real bad. He was not able to move from the pain for a long while and complained of tremendous ache in his neck, and right foot.

On that very day he was examined by physicians of the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, where a CT scan and an MRI was performed on his cervical spine. The CT scan revealed a bony projection (i.e osteophytes) in two of his vertebrae C3 and C4. The MRI report also showed the accumulation of some fluid (endema) in the bony projection arising from the C4 vertebrae of Johnson. The language wasn’t definite in either of these reports and both said that all the injuries noted in them were probably reflective of the fracture in the vertebrae.

Prior to this accident Johnson had been diagnosed with diffuse idiopathic skeletal hypertrophy, or DISH. And this condition, (DISH) is known to cause the spurring down of the vertebrae. However there were no pre-accident reports to compare the post-fall CT scan and MRI scan report.

This was acknowledged by Dr. Belinda Meritt, a physiatrist who later treated Johnson on three occasions between August 28 2012 and September 28, 2012, when he was admitted for care at the Cane Creek Rehabilitation Hospital. She is also the expert that the defendant sought to exclude in this case.

Dr. Merritt had not conducted any form of primary examination on Johnson’s fracture before proceeding to treat him. Neither had she perused his radiological report. She had started her treatment only on the basis of the summary report of the diagnosis that Jackson-Madison County General Hospital had provided Johnson with before discharging him from their care.

Dr. Merritt had deposed in favour of Johnson’s accusation against the defendant in this case. She had stated that there was a reasonable medical probability that Johnson’s injuries, especially the fractures, were caused from the collapse of the pile of lumber on him.

However the Company contended that the fact that Dr. Merritt had not diagnosed Johnson herself who had also agreed in her cross examination that the plaintiff’s prior condition of DISH could have had a chance in weakening his vertebrae, and the fact that the language of the MRI and CT scan report were speculative in nature—made her testimony anecdotal and unreliable for the consideration of the court.

In response to this, Johnson cited Rule 703 of the Federal Rule of evidence that allowed experts to base their opinion on both personally observed facts and also on information that they have discovered or been made aware of outside of the court. Such secondary information would only be required to be something that other experts in that particular field could reasonably place their reliance on.

The court accepted this argument of the plaintiff and noted that the company misinterprets the language of the MRI scan and the CT scan report. Besides there were other medical records that diagnosed the fracture in definite terms (the discharge summary report, the X ray and the imaging reports). Keeping all these findings in mind the Court allowed the testimony of Dr. Merritt and reiterated that because she had based her diagnosis and opinion on most of the reports prepared by the medical professional/body, of Jackson-Madison County General Hospital’s her testimony could be admitted.