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Indiana Supreme Court Opinion Clarifies the Limitations of Lay Witness and Expert Testimony

April 9, 2010 Info Articles

A recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion has clarified the role of an injured party’s ability to express opinions about their injury and what a defense medical expert can say about the medical treatment received in an Indiana personal injury case. In Sibbing v. Cave, 2010 WL 744928 (Ind.) the plaintiff, Mrs. Cave, brought suit after she was injured in a motor vehicle collision with the defendant, Mr. Sibbing. Mr. Sibbing admitted liability but argued that Mrs. Cave’s injuries were not caused by the crash. The trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff, Mrs. Cave. The defendant, Mr. Sibbing, appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by allowing Mrs. Cave to give her own opinion on the cause of her pain. Mr. Sibbing also argued that the trial court erred by excluding his hired medical expert to testify that the plaintiff really didn’t need all the medical treatment she received.

The Indiana Supreme Court found that Mrs. Cave’s own opinion as to the cause of her pain qualified as permissible testimony by a lay witness pursuant to Indiana Rule of Evidence 701. Upon direct examination, Mrs. Cave was asked what she believed was causing her pain. She replied that her lower back pain was due to a bulging disk. The defendant objected under Indiana Rule of Evidence 803(4) and 702. The Court, however, found that the Mrs. Cave could describe what she believed to be causing her pain, even if it does include aspects of medical diagnosis.

The Court also addressed the defendant’s attempt to have their hired doctor testify that not all of Mrs. Cave’s treatment was necessary. Other Indiana courts had decided that a doctor’s poor choice of treatment shouldn’t be held against an injured plaintiff. In other words, a plaintiff’s recovery of medical expenses shouldn’t be reduced just because they received arguably unnecessary treatment. The Sibbing court affirmed this idea and concluded that the defendant could not use their medical expert to say that Mrs. Cave’s doctors used poor medical judgment in treating her injury. However, a defense medical expert can still claim that the injured plaintiff had a pre-existing condition that had nothing to do with the injury caused by the defendant. In the case where a plaintiff has a prior unrelated injury, the expenses for the treatment of that injury would not be recoverable at trial.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the jury’s award of $71,675 to Mrs. Cave was proper, and thus, the verdict would stand affirmed.

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