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Federal Court Rejects Prison Doctor's "Expert" Testimony

A U.S. District Court judge in Arizona has rejected nearly all of the proffered testimony of a doctor that prison officials had claimed was an "expert" on the issues of "the unique challenges of providing health care" in a correctional setting" and whether prison medical staff was "deliberately indifferent" to plaintiff's medical needs in this case.

While the facts provided in court documents are scarce, what is known is that the plaintiff, Anita J. Scarim, was a prisoner in Arizona when she sought treatment for torticollis, a preexisting condition in which Scarim suffered from a twisted and painful neck.

Scarim filed suit alleging that the prison medical department was deliberately indifferent to her medical needs by refusing to treat her condition. Court records show she made 54 requests for treatment.

In moving for summary judgment, prison officials submitted an. affidavit from David Thomas, M.D., J.D., who they claimed was an expert in the difficulty of delivering medical services in a prison setting. Thomas also offered his opinion on the timing and quality of the medical care given to Scarim for her toricollis. Scarim moved to strike Thomas' affidavit, claiming he was unqualified to give expert testimony because his medical specialty is unrelated to torticollis.

Judge Susan R. Bolton rejected the vast majority of Thomas' affidavit. In so doing she noted that Thomas offered several opinions on the appropriateness of Scarim's treatment, and merely recited information found in Scarim's prison medical files.

"Special knoweldge of torticollis is necessary for an expert to opine on its causes and treatments . . . [b]ecause Dr. Thomas does not have that special knowledge, he cannot testify regarding these issues," Bolton wrote.

Dr. Thomas also wrote in his affidavit that "there was no deliberate indifference" in Scarim's medical treatment. But the court found that such testimony would be an improper infringement on the province of the jury. "An expert witness cannot give an opinion as to legal conclusions, i.e., an opinion on an ultimate issue of law," said Bolton.

The court found that the only area Dr. Thomas may be qualified to give an expert opinion was issues relating to prison medical care generally -- but did not guarantee that such testimony would be admissible. See: Scarim v. Ryan, et al., No. CV-11-01736-PHX-SRB (U.S.D.C. AZ 04/16/2013).

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Related legal case

Scarim v. Ryan, et al.