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Court of Special Appeals Finds that Trial Court Committed Reversible Error in Committing Evidentiary Errors during Medical Malpractice Trial

Schneider v. Little
No. 1346 (Md. App. June 1, 2012),

by Wayne Heavener, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In Schneider v. Little, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed a jury verdict for Victoria Little (“Little”) in a medical malpractice action, based upon the trial court’s rulings on two (2) evidentiary issues. The Court found that the trial court erred in (1) excluding a CAT scan that defendants allegedly failed to provide to Little in discovery, and (2) admitting evidence that defendant Dr. Roger Schneider (“Dr. Schneider”) was not board-certified. Finding that the trial court’s rulings constituted reversible error, the Court remanded the case for a new trial.

On July 16, 2007, Little underwent surgery to repair a blocked aorta. Dr. Schneider and another surgeon performed the procedure, intending to use a graft to connect Little’s aorta to her femoral artery. During the course of the procedure, the surgeons had to remove much of the aorta’s lining, due to calcification. Little’s severely diseased aorta was unable to support the sutures necessary to attach her femoral artery. As a result, the surgeons inserted the graft between Little’s axillary and femoral arteries and over sewed her aorta. Little lost 5100 cc’s of blood during the surgery and suffered severe complications. After the surgery, Little was paralyzed from the waist down, with little control over her bowels or bladder.

Little filed suit against her surgeons and anesthesiologists, which went to trial on April 26, 2007. The parties disputed the causes of Little’s injuries. Little argued that the graft used by the defendants was too large for her aorta, which led to excessive bleeding and subsequent paralysis. Dr. Schneider argued that the graft was of appropriate size; rather, Little’s paralysis was caused by a rare complication from clamping her aorta. The diameter of Little’s aorta became a major issue at trial.

Dr. Schneider sought to admit a 2007 CAT scan. The CAT scan allegedly demonstrated that Little’s aorta was 14-15 mm in diameter, rather than the 7-8 mm indicated in an allegedly erroneous operative note. The trial court found that the CAT scan was inadmissible, because Dr. Schneider’s counsel allegedly failed to provide the document in discovery. In support of her position, Little was allowed to admit evidence that Dr. Schneider was not board-certified and was permitted to call an anesthesiologist—Thomas Dodds, M.D.—to testify as to causation of her injuries. Ultimately, the jury agreed with Little’s experts. After trial, defendants filed a Motion for New Trial, which was denied. Only Dr. Schneider appealed.

The intermediate appellate court determined whether the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the CAT scan, admitting evidence that Dr. Schneider was not board-certified, and admitting expert testimony from Little’s anesthesiologist expert, Dr. Dodds, as to the cause of Little’s paralysis. Regarding the exclusion of the CAT scan, the Court first observed that there was no actual reason to believe that Dr. Schneider’s attorney failed to disclose the CAT scan in discovery. Secondly, the Court found that the trial court failed to consider the five “Taliaferro factors” when determining the proper sanction for Dr. Schneider’s alleged discovery failure. The Taliaferro factors include: whether the disclosure violation was technical or substantial; the timing of the disclosure; the reason for the violation; the degree of prejudice to the parties; and whether the prejudice might have been cured by a postponement. Taliaferro v. State, 295 Md. 376, 390-91, 456 A.2d 29, 37 (1983). Therefore, the Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the CAT scan and all expert testimony regarding the CAT scan. Given that the diameter of Little’s aorta was a major issue in the case, the Court found that exclusion constituted reversible error.

Regarding evidence that Dr. Schneider was not board-certified, the Court found that the trial court erred in permitting Little’s counsel to cross-examine Dr. Schneider on the subject. The Court found that Dr. Schneider’s board-certification was not relevant to the trial, see MD. RULE 5-401, stating that “[w]hether a physician is board-certified or not has no relevance as to whether a physician was negligent in a particular case.” Schneider v. Little, No. 1346, slip op. at 32 (Md. App. June 1, 2012). The Court acknowledged that a party may “open the door” to otherwise irrelevant evidence, but only if the party injects the issue into the case. Given that Dr. Schneider’s lack of certification was stressed throughout the trial, the Court found that its admission constituted reversible error.

Regarding Dodds’ testimony as to causation, the Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting the anesthesiologist to testify concerning Little’s paralysis. While acknowledging that Dodds was not a specialist in the area of spinal cord injury, the Court held that Dodds possessed the requisite knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education to testify on causation. Dr. Schneider’s objection as to Dodds’ credentials on the subject went to the weight of Dodds’ testimony, but not its admissibility. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting Dodds to testify regarding causation.


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