March 17, 2017
Originally published on The Legal Intelligencer an ALM Media publication, March 16, 2017.
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By: Daniel E. Cummins
A plaintiff’s personal injury case can go off the rails when the plaintiff’s medical experts offer opinions that conflict with one another. This may typically arise where one expert for the plaintiff opines that a particular injury was caused by the subject accident and yet another expert questions whether the injury is indeed related.
Under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 702, titled “Testimony by Expert Witnesses,” it is provided, that “a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify in the form of an opinion” if the expert’s specialized knowledge is beyond that of a layperson and such knowledge will assist the jury to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue.
Generally speaking, the admissibility of expert opinion is a matter left largely within the broad discretion of the trial court, as in Bolus v. United Penn Bank, 525 A.2d 1215, 1225 (Pa.Super. 1987).
Where a plaintiff’s experts conflict with one another, the plaintiff is likely to be faced with a defense motion in limine seeking to preclude each expert’s opinion on the basis that allowing such evidence would only serve to confuse, and not educate, the jury.
Notably, in the separate scenario where the defense produces conflicting expert reports in a civil litigation matter, the defense may still be permitted to proceed with the expert testimony as the defense does not bear the burden of proof at trial. The remedy for the plaintiff in this regard is to point out to the jury the conflicting nature of the opinions of the defense experts in an effort to discredit the defense.
The ‘Mudano’ Rule
Under what has become known as the Mudano rule, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Mudano v. Philadelphia Rapid Transit, 289 Pa. 51, 60, 137 A. 104, 107 (1927), has held that the testimony of a plaintiff’s medical experts must be reasonably consistent with one another such that, with respect to the plaintiff’s experts, “there must be no absolute contradiction in their essential conclusions.” The court further stated that a plaintiff has a “duty to furnish consistent, and not inconsistent, advice—otherwise the jury would be confused rather than instructed.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reiterated the Mudano rule in case of Brannan v. Lankenau Hospital, 417 A.2d 196 (Pa. 1980). In Brannan, the court cited Mudano for the proposition “that a plaintiff’s case will fail when the testimony of his two expert witnesses is so contradictory that the jury is left with no guidance on the issue, see also Menarde v. Philadelphia Transportation, 103 A.2d 681 (Pa. 1954) (The Pennsylvania Supreme Court applies Mudano rule to the plaintiff’s expert reports); see also Halper v. Jewish Family and Children Services of Great of Philadelphia, 963 A.2d 1282, 1287 (Pa. 2009) (The Pennsylvania Supreme Court applies the Mudano rule to the plaintiff’s expert reports).
Even if a plaintiff attempts to supplement his discovery responses to only identify one of the two conflicting as the only expert the plaintiff will call at trial, the Mudano rule will be implicated when the defense cross-examines the plaintiff’s expert with respect to the separate, contradictory opinion of the plaintiff’s other expert.
In such a case, the jury would still be faced with conflicting opinions by two experts from the plaintiff’s side of the matter, i.e., the very situation that the Mudano rule holds will cause the plaintiff’s case to fail. The defense argument will be that the plaintiff should not be allowed to put the court, the parties, the attorneys and the jurors through the time and expense of the trial by simply choosing to identify one expert and ignoring the contradictory opinions of his or her other expert. Such evidentiary gamesmanship should not be countenanced by the courts where the purpose of a civil trial is get to the truth of the claims and defenses asserted.
Not Applicable to Defense
The courts of Pennsylvania have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to have the Mudano rule applied to defense experts that conflict with one another. The courts have reasoned that the rule should not apply to the defense case because the defense does not bear the burden of proof at trial.
Plaintiffs may cite to the case of Smith v. German, 253 A.2d 107 (Pa. 1959), in support of an argument that the defense must produce consistent evidence in an effort to disprove causation between an accident and a plaintiff’s alleged injuries.
However such an argument has been rejected by more recent Pennsylvania appellate court decisions. In Kennedy v. Sell, 816 A.2d 1153, 1159 (Pa. Super. 2003), the Pennsylvania Superior Court stated that its “research indicates that Smith has never been cited in subsequent cases for the proposition that in all cases where a defendant challenges the causation element of a plaintiff’s case, that he must produce independent evidence of his own. In fact, we can find no case citing to Smith that applies the case to the defendant. In large part, Smith, as it may apply to a defendant, appears to be an anomaly limited to the facts of that case.”
Rather, in personal injury matters, the defense has no burden of proof on the issue of causation and, therefore, the Mudano is inapplicable to the defense evidence. As emphasized by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the Kennedy case, when there is some evidence of other causes of a plaintiff’s alleged injuries, the burden of proving these other causes does not shift to the defense. To the contrary, as confirmed by the Kennedy court, absent special circumstances, a defendant carries no burden of proof in a civil litigation matter.
Stated otherwise, “a defendant may choose to present no evidence and may simply argue that the plaintiff has not met its burden of proof. A jury may find for the defendant in such a situation.” The Kennedy court also pointed out that the Smith decision “does not require a defendant … to present independent medical testimony specifically linking the alleged injuries to another cause.”
Moreover, it has otherwise generally been held as a principle of Pennsylvania law that an opinion offered by the party, i.e., the defendant, not having the burden of proof need not be as precise as an opinion offered by the party with the burden of proof, as in Neal v. Lu, 530 A.2d 103, 109-110 (Pa. Super. 1987).
It Comes Down to Sufficiency of Expert Evidence
It has generally been held by the courts of Pennsylvania that the effect of a conflict between the testimony of different experts called by a party is in reality a question of the sufficiency of the evidence.
In the case of conflicting expert opinions presented by a defendant not having the burden of proof, the courts will allow the issue to proceed to the jury for the jury’s consideration as to what weight to be applied to such contradictory evidence.
However, conflicting expert opinions on the plaintiff’s side of the case will often prove fatal. Such evidence fails to satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of proof, renders the plaintiff’s case speculative and, if the case were allowed to proceed to verdict, would cause the jury to engage in impermissible guesswork on the important issues presented in the case.
Accordingly, where a plaintiff’s experts conflict with one another, the courts will likely preclude such experts under the Mudano rule and then proceed to enter a nonsuit in favor of the defense due to the plaintiff’s failure to meet his or her burden of proof on the case presented. •
Special to the Law Weekly Daniel E. Cummins is a partner and civil litigator with the Scranton law firm of Foley Comerford & Cummins. His civil litigation blog, Tort Talk, can be viewed at www.TortTalk.com.