New Groundbreaking Alliance for Law and Medicine; Chattanooga Launches National Pilot Program
The project evolves around Rules 702 and 706 of the Rules of Evidence, which govern the admissibility of expert testimony in civil cases and the ability of a trial judge to call an independent expert. The Alliance pilot program has developed a procedure for determining the qualification and credibility of potential expert witnesses in some medical malpractice cases. The process will help a judge determine whether an expert's opinion will be admissible at trial well in advance of the trial itself. The process does not favor either the plaintiff or defendant, but will rather help a trial judge, through the use of the independent expert from a neighboring state and suggested by a local a panel of doctors, to determine whether the expert called by either side should be able to testify. What is unique in the process is the combination of the Rule of Evidence with the panel of doctors.
“I think it will set leading edge benchmarks as well as critical and fair guidance for both plaintiff and defendant groups.”
Two national leaders in law and medicine came to Chattanooga today to endorse this unique initiative. Dennis Archer, former Detroit mayor, Michigan Supreme Court Justice, and Immediate Past President of the American Bar Association, and Dr. Donald Palmisano, Past President of the America Medical Association and a surgeon who is an acclaimed expert on medical liability and patient safety, saluted the program, which was nearly two years in the making.
"As a judge, I saw first hand the impact the contentious relationships had on all parties involved and on the legal system itself," said Thomas. "So, in May 2004 I approached the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and the Chattanooga Bar Association about trying to seek common ground and identify positive partnerships."
The initiative establishes guidelines to ensure that expert witnesses in a trial are qualified to offer opinions about the medical questions at issue. It works like this: A panel of neutral physicians at medical schools or other institutions, who are the recognized experts in the field of medicine in question, could be appointed by agreement of both sides to evaluate the scientific validity of the expert testimony that would be offered by both the plaintiff and the defendant physician. The panel would report to the judge if the testimony offered by either side's witness was not scientifically valid. The goal of the project is to reduce the amount of time and money it currently takes for medical malpractice cases to get through the system. Cases where baseless testimony would be introduced could be dismissed by the judge and never be tried. The initiative is designed to reduce "hired gun" experts from offering unfounded scientific opinions.
"The Alliance pilot program in Chattanooga may be the single most important work going on the country as is pertains to streamlining and unifying the medical and legal professions whose relations have remained so strained and counter-productive," said Archer, who is now in private practice with Dickinson Wright, LLC, a Detroit-based law firm. "I think it will set leading edge benchmarks as well as critical and fair guidance for both plaintiff and defendant groups."
Others believe that The Alliance pilot program can discourage litigation that does not have a sound medical basis. Dr. Palmisano said, "I believe that some self-proclaimed experts will think twice about testifying if they know that their opinions may be examined by an independent expert with recognized expertise, rather than a trial judge who may not have the scientific background to know whether an expert's opinion is scientifically based."
"My belief from the side of medicine is that this new program may deter frivolous or speculative cases from going to court," said Dr. Palmisano. "While we face significant problems that call for medical liability reform, this is an important initiative."
A. Bernard Ackerman, M.D., President of the Coalition and Center for Ethical Medical Testimony, said the organization he heads is designed to ensure ethical medical testimony. "Every citizen, physicians included, needs to testify truthfully under oath and physicians can be motivated to truth telling by knowledge that their testimony will be reviewed scrupulously by peers and then published verbatim."
Thomas said that education is second key focus for The Alliance. Plans include seminars and workshops conducted by physicians and attorneys on topics such as establishing solid medical businesses, the mechanics of the legal system, reducing the risk of malpractice, reducing stress in a practice, and resolving scheduling issues more efficiently.
"This effort has been possible because a number of attorneys and physicians came together to work in harmony to resolve issues," Thomas said. "Our hope is that this process can transition into other industries that face a similar long, drawn out and expensive legal process."