The US Court of Appeals recently issued a ruling that underscores the value of appropriate expert medical testimony in cases involving injury and disability. In a case that had come through the courts in Indiana, the Court of Appeals rejected the ruling of a lower court judge because he had given improper weight to the opinions of a physician who had not even examined the plaintiff. That earlier ruling was overturned and the case was sent back for further proceedings. The Social Security Administration was also told to obtain proper medical testimony from the plaintiff’s physician. The appeals court further noted that the judge in the lower court made an unreasonable evaluation by deciding the case based on weak testimony while ignoring stronger evidence.
Injury Leads to Severe Pain and Degeneration
In 1985, the plaintiff, Debbie Stage, slipped two discs while working her factory job. Although she continued to work, over time her condition deteriorated. By 2007, the physicians who treated her had diagnosed a variety of problems, including a lumbar disc bulge, degenerative disc disease, and severe degenerative arthritis. Their examinations stated that constant pain prevented Stage from standing or walking for more than a short period of time. In October 2009 she had to leave her job due to debilitating back and hip pain, after which she made a Social Security Disability benefit claim. That claim was denied, and Stage appealed.
Medical Exams Agreed, but Were Ignored
The reports of several practitioners who examined Stage between 2009 and 2011, including her primary care physician, a spinal pain specialist, and a consulting physician for Social Security, agreed that she had serious spine problems and suffered from severe hip and back pain. Beginning in 2010, she began wearing a prescription back brace and sought relief through a series of prescription painkillers, including Percocet, Vicodin, and Valium. A 2011 incident of severe pain led Stage to the emergency room, after which an orthopedic surgeon documented her “disabling symptoms” and recommended a full hip replacement. Only one report disputed any of this and rated her claim as only “partially credible”—and it was from a physician who reviewed Stage’s records in March 2012 without actually examining her.
However, in her June 2012 disability hearing, the judge ignored the majority of the medical testimony and declared that Stage was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits. A lower court denied an initial appeal of this decision.
Appeals Court Sends Message
The Court of Appeals strongly disagreed with the original judge’s decision. In places, the ruling uses pointed language to describe the judge’s “flawed” and “not logically supported” decision.
“[Judges] are required to rely on expert opinions instead of determining the significance of particular medical findings themselves,” one part reads. In other words, judges are not doctors and need to restrict themselves to matters of law while in the courtroom. “The [judge] was not qualified or authorized to determine… her… ability to stand and walk for six hours a day…” In reviewing the facts of the case, the appeals court noted that the original judge’s decision “strains credulity.”
The court acknowledged that a judge has the ability to reduce the weight of an examining physician’s testimony, but he must show that it is outweighed by other evidence and explain why. In this case, “No such analysis was conducted.”
Experienced Medical Case Lawyers
This case was specific to Social Security benefits, but the same principle applies to any personal injury case: when an injury is claimed, it’s critical that appropriate and verifiable expert medical testimony be secured for use as evidence at trial. A case might seem simple—a dog bite or a slip-and-fall—but it might hinge on medical evidence. Regardless of the surface appearance, every case from a “simple” injury in a car accident to a complicated suit involving a surgical error needs to be as strong as possible. In those cases where a victim is treated unfairly, your attorney needs to have the ammunition ready to move on to a strong appeal.
At Wilson Kehoe Winingham, we recognize the importance of medical testimony in medical malpractice and other cases. We offer a free consultation to discuss the details of your claim and help you understand how your case might proceed. Give us a call today at 317-920-6400 or contact us online.