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Disclosure of Facts Reasonably Relied upon by Testifying Expert to Jury

August 5, 2020

In Lamalfa v. Hearn, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly admitted into evidence Plaintiff’s post-accident medical records offered by Defendant and relied upon by Defendant’s medical expert in opining that Plaintiff’s injuries were not related to the accident.

This case arises out of a motor vehicle accident on October 14, 2011, wherein Plaintiff claims she sustained, among other injuries, a rotator cuff tear and a hernia, both of which required surgery.  Plaintiff’s hernia repair performed on March 7, 2012, was a recurrent issue for plaintiff who had previously undergone surgery in 1984.  Plaintiff’s surgery to repair the rotator cuff tear in her right shoulder was performed in December 2014, over three years after the accident.  

Defendant’s expert testified that Plaintiff’s condition of the shoulder was not as a result of an acute injury, but rather a degenerative condition.  The expert opined that if a rotator cuff tear had occurred at the time of the accident, plaintiff’s medical records would have documented acute pain and issues with range of motion, but they did not.  With respect to the hernia, Defendant’s expert similarly opined that if Plaintiff had an abdominal issue, it would have been apparent shortly after the accident, and the medical records do not support such a finding.  Defendant’s doctor testified that he relied on the emergency department record and three other treatment records in forming his opinions.  At trial, Defendant’s counsel offered these four records into evidence and they were admitted over Plaintiff’s counsel’s objection.  

A directed verdict as to liability was entered for the Plaintiff and the issue of damages was submitted to the jury.  The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $10,576.05 which was only slightly more than Plaintiff’s past medical expenses.  Plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court erred in admitting her medical records into evidence because they were inadmissable hearsay offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  The Court of Specials Appeals found no abuse of discretion by the trial court and Plaintiff then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to Maryland’s highest court.  The Court of Appeals held that the records were properly admitted under Maryland Rule 5-703(b).  

In so finding, the Court explained that an expert may rely on both admissible and inadmissible facts in forming an opinion, so long as the facts are the kind that other experts in that field would reasonably rely upon in forming opinions.  Such facts may actually be “disclosed” to a jury, at a trial court’s discretion, under Maryland Rule 5-703(b), if these facts are determined to be: (1) trustworthy; (2) unprivileged; (3) reasonably relied upon by an expert in forming his opinion; and (4) necessary to illuminate that expert’s testimony.  The Lamalfa Court concluded that the records at issue satisfied the elements as set forth in Rule 5-703(b) and therefore, there was no error in admitting these records into evidence.  Specifically, there was no dispute that the records were not privileged or that they were reasonably relied upon by the expert. The Court further reasoned that the records were prepared by the Plaintiff’s own treating doctors and were thus, trustworthy.  With respect to whether the records were necessary to illuminate the expert’s opinion, the Court determined that the record supported such a finding.  Although the record in this case supported the trial court’s decision, the Court cautioned that a trial court should make a clear record of its findings as to all four elements.    

Having concluded that the elements of Rule 5-703(b) were satisfied, the Court further opined that the term “disclose” and “admit” are synonymous and the use of “disclose” did not limit an expert to a mere discussion of the facts and/or records, but permitted the admission and submission of the records to the jury to explain the factual bases for the expert’s opinion.  

Rule 5-703(b) further provides that, upon request, the trial court shall instruct the jury that such facts are disclosed, not as substantive evidence, but instead, “only for the purpose of evaluating the validity and probative value of the expert’s opinion or inference.”  In this case, however, the Court held that Plaintiff failed to request the limiting instruction which constituted a waiver of any issue as to the weight that the jury may have accorded the medical records.  The Court went on to say, however, that if admission of the medical records was error, it was harmless and the record failed to demonstrate that the jury placed undue weight on the records.