We’ve all had cases where plaintiffs try to use their prescribers and treaters as their experts on everything from failure to warn and causation to design defect and company conduct. Even on the medical aspects of the case, a treater needs to offer more than just an unsupported general conclusion in order to withstand scrutiny under Daubert. But, when a surgeon or an orthopedist, for example, starts to offer opinions on product defects; when he or she has sufficiently wandered away from the parameters of their general expertise; the bar needs to be set even higher. Or, at least the proffered opinion needs to be even more carefully scrutinized. And certainly something more than — gee, I’ve never seen this before – is required.
But – gee, I’ve never seen this before – is all plaintiffs had to offer in Whybark v. Synthes, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67988 (W.D. Ken. May 4, 2017). And that’s why defendants were awarded summary judgment. The case involves a bone screw (a product dear to Bexis and me). Plaintiff had one implanted in his foot to correct an osteoarthritis issue. Id. at *1. Two months after surgery, x-rays revealed that the plaintiff’s bones had not yet fully healed. X-rays taken four months after surgery show the bone still not completely healed and also that the bone screw had fractured. Id.
Kentucky products liability actions are governed by the Kentucky Product Liability Act which allows three potential claims: defective design, defective manufacture, and failure to warn. Id. at *4-5. Plaintiffs abandoned both their design defect and their failure to warn claims. On design defect, the only evidence in the case was that plaintiff’s surgeon testified the product was safe and effective. Id. at *5. Nor did plaintiffs challenge that the package insert contained an adequate warning about the risk of screw fracture. Id. at *6.
Plaintiffs instead decided to place their sole focus on manufacturing defect. The court begins its analysis of the claim by determining that indeed plaintiffs needed expert testimony to support it. Knowledge of the design and manufacture of bone screws is “far outside the realm of common experience” of lay jurors. Id. at *7. But the only expert proffered by plaintiffs was the implanting surgeon. The surgeon’s only testimony regarding defect was that “he suspected the breakage of the [defendant’s] screw was due to a manufacturing defect because he had never seen a bone screw break after surgery.” Id. at *2. While it’s reassuring to know that the doctor has had such a good track record, that tells us absolutely nothing about whether this particular screw contained a manufacturing defect.
But even before getting to the substance or basis for his opinion, the surgeon’s testimony failed Daubert because he was unqualified on manufacturing issues. The first point was obvious, he had no training, education or experience in manufacturing, metallurgy, or biomedical engineering. Id. at *12. Beyond that though, plaintiff could offer no reason for why the doctor’s clinical experience and personal knowledge of bone screws qualified him to offer an expert opinion on manufacturing defect. Id. The treater/prescriber’s testimony is generally admissible as to care, treatment, prognosis – things he observed, concluded, or formed an opinion on in the course and scope of treatment. Id. This is another reason to challenge a treater/prescriber’s testimony on causation, if not supported by an independent expert report that withstands Daubert. While causation is in the realm of the doctor’s expertise, if it’s not something he opined on during care and treatment, he shouldn’t be allowed to opine on it at trial.
Even though clearly not qualified, the court went on to assess the reliability of plaintiff’s surgeon’s opinion. Here, the doctor failed to state his opinion, such as it was, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty. Id. at *13. That is because he couldn’t. He had done no research. Reviewed no company or manufacturing documents. He could cite no principles to support his conclusion. Id. at *14-15. But, he was well aware that “it is generally accepted in the medical community that bone screws can fracture secondary to fatigue when subject to loads caused by non-union [non-healing].” Id. at *14. So, even though he’d never seen it before, he knew it could happen. As if that wasn’t enough to take the wind from his sails, he also testified that he would “absolutely” defer to a metallurgist on the issue of defect. Id. at *15. As luck would have it, defendants had a metallurgist and he opined that the screw met industry standards and contained no manufacturing defects. Id. at *2.
Finally, plaintiffs attempted to argue res ipsa loquitur – they didn’t need an expert because the circumstantial evidence justified an inference that the screw would not have fractured absent some defect. Id. at *17. But that theory only works if plaintiffs can eliminate “all other reasonable explanations for the accident;” in this case the fracture. But they can’t because plaintiff’s own surgeon and sole expert witness conceded that the non-healing of the bone may have caused the screw to fracture. Id.
This case appears to have been a loser for plaintiffs from the outset. Relying on the treater as a defect expert just sealed its fate. The defense relies on prescribers as learned intermediaries and we don’t go after them unless really forced to. If they step this far outside their expertise, we’re sort of forced to.