Georgia Court of Appeals Holds Treating Doctor Must Be Identified as Expert Witness

The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the exclusion of a treating physician who was not identified as an expert witness on standard of care during discovery and only on the eve of trial. Plaintiff claimed she was injured by the defendant physician following three foot surgeries. The defendant recommended additional treatment, including removal of bone spurs. The defendant physician then recommended the plaintiff seek a second opinion from Dr. Light.

Plaintiff sued the defendant and attached the affidavit of a specially-retained expert witness, who offered three opinions regarding deviation from the standard of care. The parties also had a scheduling order, which was modified three times, but included specific deadlines for the identification of experts, including “rebuttal” experts. During discovery, defendant asked plaintiff to identify “any witness whom you expect to call as an expert witness at trial, including any . . . treating physicians from whom you may elicit standard of care or causation testimony at trial.” Initially, Plaintiff responded that she had not decided who she was going to call. During the extended discovery period, Plaintiff identified the affiant/specially-retained expert, who only testified to the three deviations set forth in the affidavit.

After the close of the discovery period per the scheduling order, the trial was set for over a year later. Less than a month before trial, plaintiff served supplemental discovery responses, identifying the treating physician, Dr. Light, as a witness and stating that he would offer three new opinions regarding deviations from the standard of care. Defendant deposed Dr. Light and established what he reviewed to form his opinions, which included records and imaging studies that he had not reviewed while he was caring for plaintiff.

Defendant moved to exclude Dr. Light’s standard of care testimony because he had not been identified as an opinion witness during the discovery period. The trial court granted the motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed. On appeal, plaintiff conceded she failed to identify Dr. Light as an expert witness, but argued that she was not required to do so under what she called the “treating physician exception.” The Court rejected the idea of such an exception, holding that once Dr. Light reviewed materials that he did not have while he was treating the patient and offered standard of care opinions, he was an expert witness for purposes of disclosure during discovery. The Court distinguished cases in which a treating provider is called to offer opinions derived solely from firsthand observation and those opinions are not standard of care opinions, writing “a party may present expert testimony from a fact witness (i.e., a witness who does not have to be identified pursuant to Rule 26), who is testifying as to facts he or she observed or learned” while treating the patient, but that “such a witness may not, however, provide expert opinion testimony on the standard of care and whether that standard was breached, unless the witness has been identified as an expert” under Rule 26.

Take-Home:

This is the clearest declaration by the Georgia appellate courts regarding the distinction between an “expert witness” and what is labeled a “percipient witness” in Federal court. In the course of discovery, if a treating physician is going to review data that they did not have at the time they were taking care of the patient and they are offering standard of care testimony, that witness must be disclosed. In our practice, we ask two separate interrogatories, one regarding witnesses who have been specially-retained for purposes of litigation and a separate interrogatory regarding any witness who will offer opinion testimony at trial regarding standard of care, causation, or damages.

The case also supports the notion that Georgia courts are strongly enforcing scheduling orders and doing so against all parties. All parties should be mindful that, within the confines of a scheduling order, the deadlines are meaningful and discovery and disclosure should be focused on full compliance.

The case is Glover v. Atkinson-Sneed, 2019 Ga. App. LEXIS 73 (Ga.Ct.App. Feb. 20, 2019).

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