Can An Orthopedic Expert Opine On A Plaintiff’s Substance Abuse? Louisiana Court Turns To FRE 403 For The Answer


Orthopedic Surgery Expert

Court – United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana
Jurisdiction – Federal
Case NameThomas v. W&T Offshore, Inc.
Citation – 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158918

In this case, the plaintiff tripped and fell after his boot got caught in a drainage hole on the Matterhorn Seastar, a tension leg platform attached to the subsoil and seabed of the Outer Continental Shelf. He sued W&T Offshore, Inc., the owner of the platform, alleging that he suffered injuries to his left knee and lumbar spine due to the fall. The defendant, presented an orthopedic expert witness for the case. The plaintiff moved the motion to exclude the expert’s opinions.

The Function Of An MD Expert: How Far Is Too Far?

The orthopedic expert called the plaintiff’s substance use into question, claiming that the plaintiff had lied to multiple health care professionals and exhibited “drug-seeking behavior.” The plaintiff argued that these opinions were unsubstantiated as no source was submitted by the expert.  The plaintiff also argued that because the expert specialized in orthopedics, he was not qualified to render opinions on chemical and substance abuse, the trustworthiness of witnesses, or his drug seeking behavior. The plaintiff also argued that the probative value of such testimony was outweighed by the high risk of unfair prejudice, especially because the expert was a medical doctor.

The defendant countered by arguing that the plaintiff did not produce any evidence or any legal authority to support his claim about the expert’s qualifications to opine on the plaintiff’s drug seeking behavior.

The defendant argued that the primary function of a medical doctor is to compare the patient’s subjective complaints with the available objective evidence to determine whether or not the patient has sustained an injury, causation of that injury, and appropriate medical treatment, if any. The defendant also contended that a doctor must figure out whether a patient honestly reports their symptoms. The defendant also argued that the orthopedic expert’s opinion about the patient’s truthfulness was supported by the fact that the plaintiff denied having a history of back pain, although he had received treatment for his back pain on multiple occasions. The defendant thence argued that the expert’s opinion was based on objective evidence and being a medical doctor, it fits within his expertise.

With respect to the orthopedic expert witness’ opinions regarding the plaintiff’s potential drug abuse, drug seeking behavior, and untruthfulness, the defendant argued that such testimony was relevant to the plaintiff’s motive for bringing a lawsuit and any possible prejudice to the plaintiff was outweighed by the probative value of the orthopedic expert’s opinions.

Held

The court noted that it may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. The court thus ruled that the expert’s opinions regarding the plaintiff’s alleged abuse of drugs, drug seeking behavior, and untruthfulness should be excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403. The court also concluded that there was no need to determine whether the expert was qualified to render such opinions. With respect to expert’s improper references to the plaintiff’s personal life, the court refused to exclude this testimony as no evidence was produced by the plaintiff to support his claim that they were improper.

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