Common Knowledge Exception to the Requirement for Expert Testimony in Professional Negligence Cases – Sometimes Its Child’s Play.

Is the information within the common understanding of the jury? 

Rule of Evidence 702 governing expert testimony does not always apply and bar lay testimony on issues which are just plain common sense. In certain instances the answer to whether there was professional negligence is intuitively obvious and needs no explanation by an expert or anyone else. (i.e. missed statute of limitation date, leaving behind a sponge or tools in a patient’s body following surgery). 

In Indiana, medical malpractice cases where expert opinion evidence is not necessary typically involve the failure of the operating physician to remove some foreign object from the patient’s body.  See for example:

 Funk v. Bonham (1932), 204 Ind. 170, 183 N.E. 312 (sponge left in abdomen); 

 Ciesiolka v. Selby (1970), 147 Ind. App. 396, 261 N.E.2d 95 (teflon mesh left in abdomen); 

 Klinger v. Caylor (1971),148 Ind. App. 508, 267 N.E.2d 848 (“surgical padding” left in intestinal tract); and  Burke v. Capello (1988), Ind.,520 N.E.2d 439 (cement left in hip). 

Likewise, in a similar fashion, res ipsa loquitur applied when a patient’s oxygen mask caught fire during surgery.  Cleary v.Manning, 884 N.E.2d 335, 339 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008). 

This same sort of common sense approach is endorsed in other jurisdictions as well.  See the following examples utilizing the common knowledge exception:
 Bernsden v. Johnson, 174 Kan. 230, 236-37, 255 P.2d 1033 (1953) (applying exception when post-surgery choking was caused by metal disc lodged in patient’s throat); 

 Biggs v. Cumberland County Hospital System, Inc., 69 N.C.App. 547, 317 S.E.2d 421 (1984) (where patient is known to be in weakened condition and is left alone in shower, where she falls, expert testimony on standards for nurse’s aides was not required); 

 Burks v. Christ Hosp., 19 Ohio St.2d 128, 131, 249 N.E.2d 829 (1969) (sedated, obese patient fell from hospital bed without side rails); 

 Cockerton v. Mercy Hospital Medical Center, 490 N.W.2d 856 (Iowa App.1992)(where patient fell while in x-ray room expert testimony was not required on hospital’s negligence); 

 Dimora v. Cleveland Clinic Found., 114 Ohio App.3d 711, 718, 683 N.E.2d 1175 (8th Dist.1996) (patient fell after student nurse left her unattended at her walker while opening a door); 

 German v. Nichopoulos, 577 S.W.2d 197, 202-03 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1978) overruled on other grounds by Seavers, 9 S.W.3d at 96; Green v. Lilliewood, 272 S.C. 186, 249 S.E.2d 910 (1978) (holding tubal ligation rendering intrauterine device and other birth control device useless constitutes a matter of common knowledge); 

 Hickman v. Sexton Dental Clinic, P.A., 295 S.C. 164, 367 S.E.2d 453 (Ct. App. 1988) (holding evidence presented was sufficient for the jury to infer without the aid of expert testimony a breach of duty to dental patient where patient testified an unsupervised dental assistant rammed a sharp object into patient’s mouth); 

 Hubbard v. Reed, 168 N.J. 387, 395, 774 A.2d 495, 500 (2001)(case in which the defendant dentist allegedly pulled the wrong tooth); 

 Natale v. Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575 (3d Cir.2003) (personnel failed to call treating physician to determine how often insulin was to be administered); 

 Newhall v. Central Vermont Hospital, Inc., 133 Vt. 572, 349 A.2d 890 (1975)(expert testimony not required where nurse failed to respond to sedated patient’s call and patient got out of bed and fell); 

 Palanque v. Lambert-Woolley, 168 N.J. 398, 400, 774 A.2d 501 (2001)(misread the specimen identification numbers as plaintiff’s test result numbers and mistakenly determined that plaintiff had an ectopic pregnancy) 

 Robbins v. Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, 663 S.W.2d 341 (Mo.App.1983) (expert testimony not required where bed rails not raised and brain damaged patient fell out); 

 Rule v. Cheeseman, Executrix, 181 Kan. 957, 963, 317 P.2d 472 (1957) (all four cases applying exception when sponge was left in patient after surgery); 

 Schraffenberger v. Persinger, Malik & Haaf, M.D.’s, Inc., 114 Ohio App.3d 263, 267,683 N.E.2d 60 (1st Dist.1996) (patient alleged that doctor negligently and erroneously informed him that he was sterile following a vasectomy); 

 Schwartz v. Abay, 26 Kan.App.2d 707, 995 P.2d 878 (1999) (applying exception where surgeon removed 60% of the wrong vertebral disc); 

 Thomas v. Dootson, 377 S.C. 293, 659 S.E.2d 253 (Ct. App. 2008) (recognizing expert testimony was not required for claim arising from a surgical drill that burned skin on contact because claim would fall within the common knowledge or experience of laymen); 

 Veesart v. Community Hospital Asso., 211 Kan. 896, 508 P.2d 506 (1973) (expert evidence not required where elderly patient fell while going to bathroom); 

 Walker v. Southeast Alabama Medical Center, 545 So.2d 769 (Ala.1989)(where bed rail left down contrary to doctor’s order and patient fell, no expert testimony required on standard of care); 

 Washington Hospital Center v. Martin, 454 A.2d 306 (D.C.App. 1982)(mere fact that patient falls in hospital will not normally require expert testimony on hospital’s negligence). 

It is important to know your state’s law on this point and plan accordingly.  Hopefully, the cases cited above are of use.

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About Richard A. Cook

Richard Cook graduated from Purdue University in the Economics Honor Program in 1979 and obtained his Juris Doctor degree from Valparaiso University School of Law in 1982. Following law school, Richard served as a federal law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. In 1984, Richard began working as Deputy Prosecutor for the Lake County Prosecutor's Office and from there, served as Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. There he handled a number of complex criminal matters and jury trials. While there, Richard received the Chief Postal Inspector's Special Award and a letter of commendation from the U.S. Attorney General for his work prosecuting a major money order fraud scheme being perpetrated out of the Indiana State Prison system. Since leaving the U.S. Attorney's office in 1989, Richard has focused primarily on civil work and is currently a member of the firm Yosha Cook & Tisch in Indianapolis. Richard is also a member of the ITLA, IBA and the ABA, as well as, a fellow for the American College of Trial Lawyers. He is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell.

Posted on January 6, 2017, in experts, rule 702, Rules of Evidence, testimony. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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