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Maryland Court Allows Testimony of Plaintiff’s Expert Witnesses in Dental Malpractice Case

In Maryland, actions brought under the Health Care and Malpractice Act include lawsuits for negligent dental treatment, in addition to medical malpractice.  To establish a dental negligence action, opinion testimony from a dental or medical expert witness is generally required.  In an August 11, 2021 case, the Court of Special Appeals considered whether a lower court erred in determining that the expert opinions of the plaintiff’s witnesses were inadmissible evidence, which then served as the basis for granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

The plaintiff in the case alleged that she suffered a permanent loss of feeling in her tongue as a result of her oral surgeon severing lingual nerves in her jaw during the extraction of her wisdom teeth.  She filed a lawsuit asserting malpractice claims against the doctor, the surgery center, and the dentist who treated her afterward.

The plaintiff designated two expert witnesses to testify that her injury was more likely than not caused by a severed lingual nerve, which was preventable had the defendants not deviated from the standard of care when removing her wisdom teeth.  Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgement, arguing that the plaintiff’s expert opinion evidence was insufficient.  The trial court granted the motion, finding that the expert opinions were inadmissible because they relied on impermissible inferences of negligence and were not based on the plaintiff’s treatment records.

To establish negligence in a Maryland medical malpractice case, four elements must be proven: (1) the defendant’s duty based on the applicable standard of care, (2) breach of that duty, (3) causation, and (4) damages.  In most cases, the jury is not permitted to simply infer medical negligence without expert testimony, as issues relating to breaches of standards of care and medical causation are beyond the knowledge of the average layperson.  The role of a medical expert, therefore, is to establish the standard of care, and to explain how the medical or dental professional’s breach caused the injury.  In determining whether expert testimony is admissible, the trial court must consider whether a sufficient factual basis exists to support the expert’s opinion, among other factors.

On appeal, the court explained that although the plaintiff’s experts were unable to conclusively identify the particular mode by which her injury had occurred, they nevertheless could rely on circumstantial evidence to reach their opinion that the defendants were negligent.  In addition, the failure of the experts to consider available data, such as dental treatment records, goes to the weight assigned to the expert’s testimony by the fact finder, rather than to the admissibility of their testimony.  Accordingly, the appeals court held that it was an error to exclude the opinions of the plaintiff’s expert and reversed summary judgment.

At Foran & Foran, P.A., our Maryland injury lawyers can provide advice to victims of negligent dental or health care.  We have significant experience handling legal claims for medical malpractice and hospital negligence, as well as auto accidents and personal injuries.  Arrange a free consultation with an attorney by calling our office at (301) 441-2022 or contacting Foran & Foran online.

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