The Honorable Karen Shreeves-Johns of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia recently ruled that a primary care physician cannot be qualified to testify as an expert on laser spine surgery. The case involved a motor vehicle accident in which the plaintiffs sought to have a Family Practitioner testify with regard to the necessity for laser spine surgeries performed after the accident. The plaintiffs had sued Comcast of Philadelphia and one of its employees.

The jury found that the defendants were not the factual cause to one of the plaintiffs. For the other plaintiff, although the negligence did cause injuries, they were awarded a de minimus $5,000. The plaintiffs then appealed Judge Shreeves-Johns’ ruling, which precluded their proffered expert, family physician Dr. Gregory Temple, from offering opinions on the reasonableness and necessity of the spine surgeries at issue.

Judge Shreeves-Johns said, “While medical witnesses may have expertise in overlapping areas and some doctors may be more qualified than others to testify on certain medical practices, a medical witness must have some familiarity with the particular technique or surgery at issue.” She went on to add, “Simply put, an expert must demonstrate some knowledge of the specific subject matter upon which he promises to express an opinion.” The plaintiffs relied on a 1965 opinion, Comm. v. Morris and a 1974 opinion, Ragan v. Steen.

Judge Shreeves-Johns felt that plaintiffs’ counsel was creatively “stretching and manipulating the court’s decision in Ragan,” wherein the court determined that Pennsylvania ought to join other states which had since recognized the absurdity of permitting witnesses to testify as experts simply by virtue of their licenses or degrees, without any professional experience to the actual matter with which they were testifying. Although Judge Shreeves-Johns felt that Dr. Temple’s medical school training familiarized him with basic parameters of medicine, his general practice did not mean he was a specialist in an area of medicine at issue—in this case, laser spine surgery.

This case certainly falls in line with many other jurisdictions, including New Jersey, which continue to compel that any expert opining a breach of a standard of care must have similar qualifications to the defendant in question. Additionally, these experts who opine specialized procedures for the plaintiff(s) must be physicians or medical professionals who perform those same procedures regularly as part of their own practice. Currently, the decision by Judge Shreeves-Johns is being appealed by the plaintiff.