On June 6, 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court released its unanimous opinion in Rock v Crocker (Docket No. 150719).  In this opinion authored by Justice Bernstein, the Supreme Court addressed two issues in the context of a medical malpractice action:  (1) the admissibility of testimony by the plaintiff’s expert witness that the defendant physician breached the standard of care in two respects that the expert conceded caused no harm to the patient; and (2) whether an expert witness is required to be board certified in the same specialty as the defendant physician under MCL 600.2169(1)(a) at the time the expert provides testimony.

In addressing the first issue, the Court noted that MRE 401 and 402 require that evidence be relevant to be admissible and characterized the relevance contemplated by MRE 401 and MRE 402 as “logical relevance.”  The Court further noted that MRE 404, which addresses the admissibility of character and “other acts” evidence, is a rule of “legal relevance” which requires an additional layer of relevancy analysis when addressing the admissibility of “other acts” evidence.  The Court found that “other acts” evidence is only admissible if a party can show that it is (1) offered to prove something other than the defendant’s propensity to act in a certain way, (2) logically relevant and (3) not unfairly prejudicial under MRE 403.  The Court held that a trial court should not apply MRE 403 unless it first finds that the evidence is both legally relevant under MRE 404 and logically relevant under MRE 401 and 402.  The Court ultimately held that the trial court erred in finding the evidence regarding other breaches of the standard care relevant without analyzing whether the evidence was “legally relevant” under MRE 404.  The Court’s holding regarding the “legal relevance” requirement may make it more difficult for plaintiffs to admit “other acts” evidence regarding the defendant physician into evidence at trial in malpractice cases.

In its analysis of the board certification issue, the Court employed a detailed statutory interpretation analysis in finding that MCL 600.2169(1)(a) requires only that a proposed expert witness be board certified in the same specialty as the defendant physician at the time of the alleged malpractice.  As a result, the statute does not require an expert witness to hold the same board certification as the defendant physician at the time the witness testifies so long as the witness held the same board certification at the time of the alleged malpractice.  Therefore, the Court found that the plaintiff’s expert was qualified under MCL 600.2169(1)(a) notwithstanding the fact that his board certification lapsed after the date of the alleged malpractice.  The Court’s holding on the timing of the board certification requirement of MCL 600.2169(1)(a) adds clarity to an issue that was arguably ambiguous based on the statutory language and will allow expert witnesses to offer standard of care testimony even if the expert’s board certification expires at some point after the occurrence of the alleged malpractice and before the expert testifies.

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