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Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Experts Can Be Necessary for Medical Causation

Massachusetts allows personal injury cases to move forward if there is an “obvious causal relationship” between the injury claimed and the accident that forms the basis of the claim.  However, a recent case was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge who ruled that a premises liability plaintiff could not rely on Massachusetts’ “obvious causal relationship” exception to avoid having to introduce expert medical testimony rebutting a defense expert’s opinion that her torn rotator cuff was due to a fall that occurred eight months before she slipped and fell at the defendant’s store.

In this particular case, the Plaintiff slipped and fell in the restroom of a Costco store.  Two and a half months later she was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff.  In moving for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s negligence claim, Costco’s attorneys introduced medical expert testimony which held that the atrophy in the plaintiff’s shoulder indicated that the injury occurred when she fell down the stairs eight months prior to her fall at Costco.

Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the plaintiff did not need to rebut Costco’s expert witness with her own expert testimony based on the obvious causal relationship between the alleged injury and alleged negligent act.  However, the Judge disagreed and granted Costco’s motion for summary judgment for the rotator cuff injury claim.  Summary judgment is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party without a full trial.

Specifically, Costco’s expert provided unrebutted testimony that the plaintiff’s injury predated the Costco fall because there was evidence of atrophy seen in her MRI.  The expert concluded that the results of the MRI were “more consistent with a more chronic tear which would have been present prior to the fall in March 2017.” The doctor opined “that it [was] probable, to a degree of reasonable medical certainty, that [Plaintiff’s] rotator cuff tear preceded her fall of March 2017 and may in fact have been caused by the fall of [July] 2016.”  He added that “one [could not] say to a medical degree of certainty that the rotator cuff tear was caused by the March 2017 incident.” Based on this testimony, the Judge wrote that “a jury could not conclude, without speculating, that [the Plaintiff’s] rotator cuff tear was caused by Costco’s alleged negligence.

The basic lesson here is that, because Costco retained an expert witness, the plaintiff would likely have needed to retain an expert here to rebut Costco’s position and avoid summary judgment.  While this is not always the case, if a defendant can take a position (supported with medical evidence) that an injury is not causally related to the alleged negligence, it makes it very compelling that the plaintiff will need to obtain an expert witness.  Had the Plaintiff not had a prior fall or prior injury to the same part of the body, an expert may not have been needed.  Likewise, had the tear been diagnosed closer to the time of the fall, the need for an expert dissipates. 

Personal injury cases are complicated and utilizing the services of a seasoned litigator with experience working with expert witnesses can make the difference between winning a case and losing at summary judgment.  If you have any questions regarding personal injury matters, please feel free to contact the Law Offices of Samuel S. Reidy for a free consultation.

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