Michigan Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for Plaintiffs in Medical Malpractice Case Despite Reversal of Case on Which the Court Initially Relied

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently upheld a prior decision concluding that the lower court improperly granted summary judgment to a defendant in a medical malpractice case, despite the Michigan Supreme Court’s reversal of a case on which the appeals court initially relied. The court reasoned that the reversed case presented a factually distinct situation from the case at hand.Plaintiffs Alexander Figurski (minor) and Howard Linden (conservator) sued a hospital, a medical group, and doctors, alleging that Figurski suffered a hypoxic-ischemic brain injury and a left middle cerebral arterial ischemic stroke during labor and delivery. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion in limine to exclude the plaintiff’s causation expert concerning claims of malpractice. The trial court therefore granted partial summary disposition as to those claims. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s order and concluded that the trial court exceeded its role as gatekeeper and acted instead as the ultimate trier of fact. It further held that there was sufficient reliable scientific data to support the plaintiff’s expert’s opinion, and summary judgement was therefore improperly granted.

In its first decision, the appeals court explained that a court screening scientific evidence must ensure that the proposed scientific or technical testimony is reliable and relevant. The court must determine which factors reasonably measure reliability, given the specific factual context and the contours of the testimony presented. But the focus should be on methodology as opposed to the expert’s ultimate conclusion. Moreover, the courtroom door should not be closed on medical experts whose opinions are often supported by extensive relevant experience. In holding for the plaintiff, the appeals court relied in part on its previous opinion in Elher v. Misra.

Following this decision, however, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed Elher. It held that the expert’s opinion in that case was not sufficiently reliable because the expert admitted that his opinion was based on his personal beliefs, there was no evidence that his opinion was generally accepted within the relevant expert community, there was no peer-reviewed medical literature supporting his opinion, the plaintiff failed to provide any other support for the expert’s opinion, and the defendant submitted contradictory, peer-reviewed medical literature.

In light of the fact that the appeals court relied in part on the now-reversed appellate decision in Elher, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the appeals court’s original decision in Figurski. On remand, the appeals court again concluded that the trial court erred in granting the defendants’ motion in limine to exclude the plaintiff’s causation expert concerning claims of malpractice.

The appeals court reasoned that the issue in Elher was different from the issue here. In Elher, it explained, the cause of the plaintiff’s injury was not in dispute. Instead, the issue was whether the surgeon had breached the standard of care. The expert in Elher admitted that his opinion regarding the standard of care was based entirely on his own definition of the standard of care. Under such circumstances, the concern in relying on the expert’s personal opinion was that he may have held himself to a higher, or different, standard than that practiced by the medical community at large. Moreover, the expert in Elher was unable to refute medical literature that was contradictory to his own opinion.

In contrast, the expert in the case at hand was asked to offer an opinion as to the mechanism of the plaintiff’s injury. Causation, not standard of care, was at issue. Additionally, her opinion was based not only on her own vast personal experience but also on literature that formed the basis of her opinion. She explained that while not one particular individual article supported her theory, a combination of the articles and the information extracted therefrom supported her ultimate opinion. Therefore, unlike the expert in Elher, the plaintiff’s expert in this case did not merely point to her background and experience in rendering her opinion. Additionally, unlike the defendant in Elher, who offered significant evidence of his own to refute the plaintiff’s expert’s opinion, the defendants in this case did not take that course of action. Instead of presenting their own witnesses, the defendants sought only to discredit the plaintiff’s expert.

The court therefore upheld its previous decision.

The medical malpractice attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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