Expert testimony to the effect that those in a specialized field of knowledge or experience consider a certain occurrence as indicative of the probable existence of negligence is at least as probative of the existence of such a probability as the "common knowledge" of lay persons. Notwithstanding the availability of expert testimony in res ipsa loquitur cases to aid a jury in determining whether an event would normally occur in the absence of negligence, expert opinion of course does not negate the jury's ultimate responsibility as finder of fact to draw that necessary conclusion. The purpose of expert opinion in this context is to educate the jury, enlarging its understanding of the fact issues it must decide. However, the jury remains free to determine whether its newly-enlarged understanding supports the conclusion it is asked to accept. In addition, the plaintiff must still establish the other requirements of res ipsa loquitur -- exclusive control and absence of contributory negligence -- before the inference will be permitted.
When a tube was inserted into the patient's right hand for anesthesia, she felt pain, and when she awoke from surgery, she complained of increasing pain in her right arm and shoulder. The patient was later diagnosed with right thoracic outlet syndrome and reflex sympathetic dystrophy. In seeking summary judgment, defendants alleged that there was no direct evidence to support the patient's theory that her arm was negligently hyperabducted for an extended time during the surgery, causing her injury. The patient offered expert medical opinion that her injury would not have occurred in the absence of negligence, which was the first element of res ipsa loquitur, a doctrine that allowed negligence to be inferred. The appellate division agreed with defendants that expert testimony was not allowed because res ipsa loquitur required a jury to draw on its common knowledge.
May a jury rely on expert testimony to support a res ipsa loquitur element?
The court of appeals held that expert testimony was allowed in medical malpractice cases to aid a jury regarding the first res ipsa loquitur element by providing it with information within the common knowledge of physicians. Thus, the expert testimony was admissible and the trial court properly denied summary judgment.