Innocent doc sued after 'secret' medical expert says claim has merit


When the hospital’s trauma team could not get an IV inserted into an accident victim, they called Illinois emergency physician William Sullivan, DO, JD, for help. Dr. Sullivan, who is based in the Chicago suburb of Frankfort, inserted a central line into the patient’s leg on his first attempt – a task that took about 20 minutes.

A year later, Dr. Sullivan was shocked and angry to learn he was being sued by the trauma patient’s family. Inserting the line was his only interaction with the woman, and he had no role in her care management, he said. Yet, the suit claimed he was negligent for failing to diagnose the patient with internal bleeding and for not performing surgery.

“The lawsuit put a lot of stress on our family,” Dr. Sullivan recalled. “At the time my wife was pregnant. I was in law school, and I was also working full time in the ER to support our family. I remember my wife crying on the couch after reading the complaint and asking how the plaintiff’s attorney could get away with making the allegations he made.”

Dr. Sullivan soon learned that 15 medical providers in the patient’s medical record were named as defendants. This included the director of the radiology department, whose name was on a radiology report as “director” but who was actually out of the country when the incident occurred.

Despite some of the accusations being impossible, a medical expert had claimed there was a “meritorious claim” against every health professional named in the suit. Illinois is among the 28 states that require plaintiffs’ attorneys to file an affidavit of merit for medical malpractice claims to move forward.

Dr. Sullivan wondered who would endorse such outlandish accusations, but the expert’s identity was a mystery. According to Illinois law, plaintiffs’ attorneys can withhold the identity of medical experts with whom they consult for affidavits of merit. About one-third of states with merit requirements permit anonymous experts, according to research and attorneys familiar with the issue.

Because the expert’s identity remains hidden, physicians have no way of knowing whether they were qualified to render an opinion, Dr. Sullivan said. The loopholes can drag out frivolous claims and waste significant time and expense, say legal experts. Frequently, it takes a year or more before innocent physicians are dismissed from unfounded lawsuits by the court or dropped when plaintiffs can’t support the claim.

“It’s hugely frustrating,” said Bruce Montoya, JD, a Colorado medical liability defense attorney. “You have an expert who is not disclosed. Further down the road, when experts are being deposed, the plaintiff does not have to reveal whether any of those testifying experts is the same one who certified the case. You never get to determine whether they, in fact, had a certificate reviewer who was legitimate.”

The laws have led to a recent outcry among physicians and fueled a revised resolution by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) denouncing anonymous affidavits of merit. (The revision has not yet been published online.)

“The minute experts are identified, they can be vetted,” said Rade B. Vukmir, MD, JD, chair of ACEP’s Medical Legal Committee. “There are reasons that you want to clarify the qualification and veracity of the witness. [Anonymous affidavits of merit] don’t allow that, and there’s something inherently wrong with that.”

Because the identities of consulting experts are unknown, it’s hard to know how many are unqualified. Expert witnesses who testify during trials, on the other hand, have long come under scrutiny for questionable qualifications. Some have come under fire for allegedly lying under oath about their experience, misrepresenting their credentials, and falsely representing their knowledge.

“Considering the known problem of potentially unethical expert witness testimony at trial, there’s is the potential likelihood that experts in anonymous affidavits of merit may sometimes lack the qualifications to give opinions,” said Dr. Vukmir, an emergency care physician in Pittsburgh.


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