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Relevance of Doctor's Credentials (or lack thereof) in Malpractice Action

According to a recent court decision, a doctor's medical credentials may be relevant when he's on the witness stand -- but not when he's been sued for malpractice?

When a medical expert is not certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties, opposing counsel will almost always bring that out on cross-examination.  But while a medical expert's lack of board certification may be relevant, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently ruled that in a medical malpractice action, a defendant doctor’s lack of board certification is not relevant.

In Schneider v. Little, Dr. Roger Schneider appealed a Harford County jury’s $2.8 million award to Victoria Little.  Little sued Dr. Schneider, a vascular surgeon, after she was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of massive blood loss during bypass surgery.  Prior to trial, Dr. Schneider’s attorneys moved to exclude his lack of board certification.  The trial court granted the motion, but noted that the ruling “was subject to reconsideration upon request during the course of the trial.”

At trial, Little called Dr. Schneider as an adverse witness.  During defense counsel’s friendly cross-examination of his client, he elicited a number of Dr. Schneider’s qualifications.   As a result of this "puffing" of Dr. Schneider's credentials, the trial court reversed its earlier ruling on the motion in limine.  The court ruled that Dr. Schneider’s counsel had “opened the door” to the admission of such evidence, and allowed Little’s attorney to question Dr. Schneider about his lack of board certification on redirect.  Dr. Schneider’s lack of board certification was stressed throughout the rest of the trial, and was a part of Plaintiff’s counsel’s closing argument.

The Court of Special Appeals, in an opinion authored by Judge Stuart Berger, held that the trial court’s admission of evidence of Dr. Schneider’s lack of board certification was not relevant to whether Dr. Schneider was negligent.  Rejecting the trial court’s ruling that Dr. Schneider “opened the door” to such evidence, the Court explained that the “opening the door” doctrine only applies when an opponent has “injected an issue into the case.”  Holding that the admission of this evidence constituted reversible error, the Court of Special Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

I agree that when viewed alone, lack of board certification is not relevant to whether a doctor was negligent in a particular instance.  However, when considered in context, the Court of Specials Appeals’ decision gives me pause.  In response to his own attorney's questions, Dr.  Schneider testified that he was “on the Board of Directors of the Upper Chesapeake Health System, had been involved with teaching medical students at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had authored various publications, and was a member of various professional organizations, including organizations that provide medical care to indigent patients.”  On the issue of negligence, how is that evidence any more relevant than the evidence of Dr. Schneider's lack of board certification? 

It will be interesting to see whether any trial courts rely on Schneider to exclude not only a defendant doctor’s lack of credentials, but also certain credentials that the doctor does, in fact, possess.



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