Indiana Supreme Court Considers Admissibility of Expert’s Disciplinary History in Car Accident Case

The Indiana Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in a car accident case in which the question before the Court was whether a party may use evidence of an expert witness’s professional disciplinary history to challenge the expert’s credibility. In Tunstall v. Manning, 124 N.E.3d 1193, 1195 (Ind. 2019), the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against a defendant driver that had rear-ended the plaintiff at a stop sign, causing injuries to the plaintiff. One of the plaintiff’s treating physicians diagnosed the plaintiff with a 28% whole body impairment.

Leading up to the jury trial, counsel for the defendant inquired about the plaintiff’s physician’s past professional discipline and the reasons underlying the physician’s past discipline. While the physician admitted his medical license had previously been on probation, he refused to answer questions about the reasons underlying his past discipline. When the defendant filed a motion in court to compel the plaintiff’s physician to answer questions about his past discipline, the trial court denied the motion, reasoning that the physician’s professional disciplinary history was not relevant because his medical license was in good standing. At trial, the defendant was unable to use the physician’s licensure probation and the reasons underlying the physician’s past discipline to impeach the physician’s testimony, which was the sole medical testimony offered by the plaintiff, based upon the trial court excluding any evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s past licensure probation and the reasons for his past professional discipline.

After an Indiana jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion by disallowing evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s licensure probation and the reasons underlying his professional discipline. In personal injury cases in which there are competing expert opinions as to the seriousness of a person’s injuries, expert testimony can be particularly important in affecting the amount of any jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Once the foundation for an expert’s opinions has been established, the accuracy, consistency, and credibility of the expert’s opinions can be challenged by the parties. The question in this case was whether the plaintiff’s physician’s expert opinions could be attacked by evidence of his professional disciplinary history.

The Indiana Supreme Court held that an expert witness’s professional licensure status and the reasons for any professional discipline can both be used to challenge an expert’s credibility, subject to the admissibility of such evidence in light of applicable statutory restrictions and specific rules of evidence. Here, the Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s licensure probation, but that the trial court properly excluded evidence of the reasons for the physician’s past discipline.

The Court reasoned the defendant should have been able to impeach the plaintiff’s physician’s opinions based upon the physician’s past licensure probation because evidence of his past licensure probation was relevant to his credibility and its probative value outweighed any prejudicial effect. As to the reasons for the physician’s past discipline, however, the Court found those were inadmissible and properly excluded because, in this case, they were barred by Indiana Evidence Rules 608 and 609. Indiana Evidence Rule 608 makes extrinsic evidence, apart from certain criminal convictions, inadmissible to prove specific instances of a witness’s conduct in order to attack the witness’s character for truthfulness. Indiana Evidence Rule 609 only allows evidence of certain criminal convictions to be used, which were not applicable in this case.

While the Court did find the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the plaintiff’s physician’s past licensure probation, the Court found such error to be harmless, and therefore, despite finding in favor of the defendant on this issue, affirmed the jury’s verdict. Under Indiana law, an error excluding evidence is harmless if the probable impact of such evidence on the jury, in light of all the evidence, is sufficiently minor so as not to affect a parties’ substantial rights. Here, the Court reasoned the error was harmless because, despite the exclusion of evidence concerning the plaintiff’s physician’s past licensure probation, the defendant had extensively attacked the physician’s credibility and testimony throughout the trial on other grounds and the plaintiff had presented substantial and consistent testimony about how her injuries affected her life.

The Court’s full opinion can be found here.

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