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TN Supreme Court Rejects Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Due to Expert Witness’ Lack of “Competency”


In a medical malpractice lawsuit, causation is everything. The plaintiff–the victim of the malpractice–must prove the defendant’s actions caused their injuries. To accomplish this, the plaintiff typically needs to present testimony from one or more qualified medical experts who can establish how the defendant’s actions deviated from the accepted standard of care. In the absence of such expert testimony, a Tennessee court will dismiss a malpractice case before it even gets to trial.

Supreme Court Reverses Intermediate Court, Holds Trial Judge Did Not Abuse Her Discretion in Dismissing Case

A recent decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court, Harmon v. Hickman Community Healthcare Services, Inc., demonstrates the high hurdle malpractice victims must clear with respect to causation. This tragic case involves a woman who died while in the custody of the Hickman County jail. Police arrested the decedent for possession of illegal drugs. Three days later, a nurse for Hickman Community Healthcare Services, which provided contract medical services to the jail, saw the defendant, who reported symptoms of drug withdrawal. Later that evening, the decedent died in her cell.

The decedent’s family subsequently filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Hickman County Healthcare and other defendants. The key issue was whether the nurse who saw the decedent followed the “applicable standard of care.” Hickman County Healthcare eventually filed a motion for summary judgment–i.e., a judgment without the need for trial–arguing the family failed to present any evidence with respect to the standard of care or causation.

In response, the family presented an affidavit prepared by an expert witness, who specialized in neurology and psychiatry. The defense argued this witness lacked competency to testify, as these specializations were not “relevant to the issues” in this particular case. The trial judge agreed and granted Hickman County Healthcare’s motion for summary judgment.

Shortly thereafter, the family asked the judge to reconsider her earlier decision based on “previously unavailable” evidence, specifically a second expert witness who had been recovering from an injury and could not provide an affidavit prior to the original deadline. The judge declined to consider this new evidence, prompting the family to appeal.

Although the Tennessee Court of Appeals held the trial judge had abused her discretion in refusing the plaintiffs’ request to “alter or amend” the summary judgment order. But the defense appealed this decision, and on January 28, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court reinstated the trial judge’s original decision. The Supreme Court explained the Court of Appeals exceeded its authority in reviewing the trial judge’s factual findings. For example, the trial court said the family could have asked for more time prior to the summary judgment hearing to secure the affidavit from their second expert. Their failure to do so did not make it an “abuse of discretion” on the trial judge’s part in deciding to award summary judgment to the defense.

Speak with a Tennessee Medical Malpractice Lawyer Today

Securing competent expert testimony is one of the most important aspects of any medical malpractice case. An experienced Gatlinburg personal injury lawyer can assist you in obtaining this and other crucial pieces of evidence. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today if you have been a victim of medical malpractice and require skilled legal representation.




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