CHARLESTON -- Mountain State judges and juries could screen who qualifies to be an "expert witness" if West Virginia adopts a plan pending in the Louisiana legislature.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said the idea will promote the integrity of the judicial process and help keep "junk science" out of the courts.
"There was a lawsuit not long ago in which personal injury lawyers presented 'medical evidence' to a West Virginia court from a doctor who doesn't exist," Cohen said. "In medical cases a recent survey found most West Virginia physician specialists have seen or heard court testimony from so-called expert witnesses they viewed as inaccurate or based on questionable science."
The Louisiana Senate unanimously passed a bill last month to determine before a lawsuit is heard whether or not expert witnesses are qualified to give testimony. Former Louisiana State Rep. Chuck McMains said such a law would provide uniformity. The Senate measure was approved last week by the Committee for Civil Law and Procedure in the Bayou State's House.
Two years ago, WV CALA sent a search dog to a Huntington address listed by plaintiff's lawyers as that of a physician who certified an x-ray. The address was an empty lot and had not been an address of record for 50 years. The phone number given by the personal injury lawyers had belonged to a Huntington woman for 12 years. A check with three medical licensing boards had no record of the doctor named in the court documents.
The x-ray in that case was taken by Bridgeport radiologist Ray Harron, who was paid close to $10 million by personal injury lawyers to perform mass screenings of patients potentially exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Many allegedly were never examined by a doctor.
"Sadly, reforms passed by the West Virginia Legislature to improve our legal system are already under attack," Cohen said, adding that a member of the law firm headed by state Supreme Court candidate Menis Ketchum is fighting recently enacted laws designed to keep Mountain State hospital emergency rooms and trauma centers open and prevent doctors from going out of state to establish their practices.
Last year WV CALA released a study conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia which showed most physician specialists in West Virginia question expert testimony in medical cases if it is outside a doctor's specialty or is tainted by financial incentives.
Dr. Gregory Saracco, former president of the Ohio County Medical Society, said that "too often a personal injury lawyer will present a so-called expert to try to put the appearance of a stamp of authority on what may be a factually baseless case. Juries must have the truth from reliable experts if our courts are to be fair."