US Court of Appeals Reverses and Sends Case Back for Trial on the Issue of Expert Medical Testimony

When Chelsea Weekley was about five months old, she suffered a skull fracture. The fracture expanded over time and a cyst was formed on her skull. At age 17, Chelsea was hit on the head and suffered a loss of consciousness, blurred vision and dizziness.

After CT and MRI scans confirmed the extent of the skull fracture and cyst, Chelsea underwent a canaloplasty surgery to repair the fracture and the area where the cyst had formed. The surgery was done at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis by the defendant Dr. Ann Flannery, a neurosurgeon, and by Dr. Raghuram Sampath, a neurosurgical resident.

Chelsea was discharged a day after the surgery and was found dead in her bed just three days later. An autopsy was completed, which found that Chelsea had died from a seizure brought about by the surgical damage.

Chelsea’s mother, Sandra Hall, filed a lawsuit against the two doctors, Dr. Flannery and Dr. Sampath, and Cardinal Glennon Hospital claiming that they provided Chelsea with negligent post-operative care. It was alleged that the negligence caused Chelsea to suffer the seizure and die.

Before the trial, Hall’s attorneys filed two motions in limine that concerned three of the defendants’ expert witnesses, which were a pediatric neurologist, a neuropathologist and a pediatric neurologist. The Hall motions sought to bar the neuropathologist from testifying that anything other than a seizure had caused Chelsea’s death.

The U.S. District Court judge granted the motion to the extent that the neuropathologist had chosen not to disclose such opinion. Hall also sought to bar the defendants and their witnesses from denying Chelsea’s death was caused by a seizure. The district court judge denied the motion noting that the defendants’ experts could provide any cause-of-death opinions that had been previously disclosed.

At trial, the pediatric neurologist testified that Chelsea’s death was not brought about a seizure, but rather by the focal interstitial chronic inflammation of Chelsea’s heart. Hall’s attorney objected, but the judge overruled the objection, finding that the opinion had been properly disclosed and did not violate her ruling on the motions in limine.

The neuropathologist then testified, over objection, that it was overwhelmingly probable that Chelsea’s death was not caused by a seizure. At the end of the trial, the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Hall appealed.

On appeal, it was argued that the district court judge erred in permitting the three defendants’ expert medical witnesses to testify about the specific causes of Chelsea’s death.

First, the appeals panel found that Hall had forfeited her claim with respect to the neuropathologist expert and pediatric neurologist expert because her lawyer made no effort in her brief to explain why either doctor’s cause-of-death testimony was improperly admitted or to identify the specific testimony that was improperly admitted.

The panel then addressed the testimony of the pediatric neurologist defense expert. The panel noted that the district court judge chose not to apply the Rule 702 (Daubert) framework to testimony. The panel stated that in Hall’s motion in limine, Hall had argued that the pediatric neurologist offered cause-of-death opinions without being qualified through education or experience and without the requisite scientific explanation.

The appeal s panel stated that, with that challenge to the pediatric neurologist’s credentials, the district court judge should have conducted a Daubert inquiry, even though Hall did not expressly reference Daubert or Rule 702 by name.

Rather, the panel noted that the district court judge focused only on whether the challenged opinions had previously been disclosed. The court of appeals determined, therefore, that its review of the admission of the pediatric neurologist’s opinion that Chelsea had not suffered a seizure before she died was properly admitted. The panel found that this doctor had the requisite experience to offer such an opinion and that the opinion was based on sufficiently reliable methodology.

Although the panel determined that the pediatric neurologist was qualified to give an opinion on Chelsea’s surgery and possibility of a seizure, the qualification did not extend to his opinion that Chelsea’s heart-related issue was the most likely cause of her death.

The panel noted that neither the pediatric neurologist’s trial testimony nor his expert report and curriculum vitae indicated that this pediatric neurologist possessed the specialized education, knowledge, experience or skill concerning focal interstitial chronic inflammation specifically, or more broadly, cardiology.

The panel concluded that the record lacked sufficient evidence demonstrating that the pediatric neurologist’s knowledge and experience rendered him qualified to give opinion about Chelsea’s heart.

Lastly, the panel determined that Hall’s substantial rights were affected. The panel stated that the jury’s decision could have been influenced by the pediatric neurologist’s testimony regarding Chelsea’s heart issue and her cause of death. Accordingly, a new trial was warranted and the decision of the district court judge reversed.

Sandra Hall v. Ann Flannery, et al., No. 15-2602 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Cir., Nov. 4, 2016).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical negligence cases, birth trauma injury cases, hospital negligence cases and brain injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Brookfield, Bensenville, Palos Hills, Arlington Heights, Orland Park, Deerfield, Schaumburg, Schiller Park, Naperville, Barrington, Chicago (Wicker Park, Bucktown, Old Town, South Shore, Hyde Park, Bronzeville), Joliet and Elgin, Ill.

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