The Mississippi Supreme Court handed down a powerful reminder today that when it comes to establishing an objective standard of care in a medical malpractice case, words matter.
The decision in Braswell v. Stinnett turned on the trial testimony of the plaintiff's medical expert -- who, in every malpractice action, is tasked with establishing the objective standard of care and explaining how the defendant breached that standard. At trial, the expert described a procedure for injecting anesthetic and said, "All that is standard." Later, the expert opined that the defendant had "deviated from good dental practice."
Close but no cigar, said the Supreme Court. By a vote of 8-0 (with Justice King having recused himself), the Court held that the expert failed to establish an objective standard of care and, therefore, that the defendant was entitled to a directed verdict.
The case resembles a similar decision from 2009, when the Court held 6-2 that an expert failed to establish an objective standard of care by testifying about his personal preferences and "the way [he] teach[es] [his] residents to do it." But that testimony seems like a much easier call than that presented by Braswell. In the 2009 decision, the articulated standard clearly was the expert's own subjective, "personal" opinion. But in Braswell, the use of the word "standard" certainly seems to make it a closer call. At the very least, "standard" implies some sort of universally recognized benchmark.
Nevertheless, Braswell makes clear that close isn't close enough. If an expert isn't using the words "objective standard of care" and "minimally competent physician" at every available opportunity, then he's putting the case at risk.