Stagg v. Summit Medical Group

By Michael Zerres

In this matter. Surgery was performed on plaintiff at ambulatory surgical facility owned by Summit Medical Group. The surgery was a septoplasty, nasal reconstruction and inferior turbinate coblation to correct nasal deformity as a result of a fracture, causing difficulty breathing in plaintiff. The surgery was performed by Dr. Jeffery LeBenger (“LeBenger”), with anesthesia provided by Dr. Tony George (“George”). The surgery was reported as being without injury, although when plaintiff awoke, she reported sharp pain in her left arm, numbness and loss of motion. She was informed that her arm was pinched during surgery, caught between the mattress and rail. Plaintiff then instituted an action for medical malpractice, claiming that she suffered from immediate compressive neuropathy and radial nerve palsy in her left arm and hand, resulting in constant pain and difficulty performing tasks due to a lack of strength in her left arm.

During discovery, counsel for the defendant George amended his answers to interrogatories to indicate that he might call Mary Zimmerman, R.N. (Zimmerman ) as an expert to be relied upon at trial. George then submitted an expert report authored by Zimmerman. Plaintiff, therefore, also indicated that she would adopt Zimmerman’s report and rely on her testimony at trial. Defendant George objected to plaintiff’s intent to call Zimmerman as an expert witness to testify on behalf of plaintiff. Defendant George asserted that he had not yet determined whether Zimmermann would be called as a witness at trial and that he had the sole right to make that determination. Plaintiff argued that under Fitzgerald v. Stanley Brothers, Inc., 186 N.J. 286, 302 (2006) defendant has no right to withhold access to an expert witness simply because he supplied the witness.

The Trial Court ruled that when a party provides an expert’s identity and opinion to an adverse party, the original retaining party waives all rights to deem the information as privileged. Similarly, it was held that Fitzgerald stands for the assertion that an adversary has the right to produce a willing expert at trial, regardless of the party who originally retained the witness, and, that absent a privilege, everyone has access to a witness. Lastly, in this case, since the expert witness was formally named, the plaintiff did not have to demonstrate the existence of exceptional circumstances in order to call her in plaintiff’s case in chief.

According to the Court, R. 4:10-2(d)(3) states, in relevant part:
“A party may discover facts known or opinions held by an expert . . . who has been retained or specially employed by another party in anticipation of litigation preparation for trial and who is not expected to be called as a witness at trial only upon a showing of exceptional circumstances under which it is impractical for the party seeking discovery to obtain facts or opinions on the same subject by other means.”

The Fitzgerald exception provides that once the identity and opinion of an expert has been disclosed, all privilege is waived. Opposing counsel is then free to rely on that opinion without a showing of exceptional circumstances. Further, the Court held that it was irrelevant that defendant George had not clearly indicated whether Nurse Zimmerman was to actually testify at trial. Moreover, Zimmerman would be free to decline to testify on plaintiff’s behalf if she so chose

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