Plaintiff was in New York City when his friend had a medical emergency. After his friend was placed in an ambulance and the doors were closed, Plaintiff said he approached the ambulance to ask the police officers if he could retrieve his friend’s belongings or ride to the hospital with him. Plaintiff alleged that after making this request, “without any warning or justification,” The officers “forcefully shoved” Plaintiff to the ground. Plaintiff claims the Defendant NYPD officers “aggressively pulled his arms behind his back” to handcuff him and then “forcefully pulled him off the ground … solely by the arms.”
As a result of the force allegedly exerted by Defendants, Plaintiff claimed that he experienced “sudden and severe pain in his left shoulder.” Plaintiff was taken to a hospital for assessment, and x-rays showed no break or dislocation in his shoulder; however, an MRI was not done. Plaintiff claims his shoulder pain persisted, ultimately leading him to visit his physician.
His doctor conducted a physical examination of Plaintiff and ordered an MRI. The radiologist reviewed the MRI results and noted “mild-moderate supraspinatus tendinosis, mild infraspinatus tendinosis with a low-grade concealed interstitial delaminating tear, [and] mild subscapularis tendinosis, [but] no high-grade or retracted rotator cuff tear”; “Os acromiale with edema at the synchondrosis, suspicious for motion”; “mild acromioclavicular joint osteoarthrosis with findings suggestive of coexisting distal clavicular osteolysis”; and [a] “low-grade sprain of the inferior glenohumeral ligament.”
At trial, Plaintiff planned to call a board-certified radiologist as his treating radiologist to testify that his shoulder injury was consistent with having his arms forcefully pulled behind him during his arrest. The expert received her M.D. in 2010, completed her residency in Diagnostic Radiology in 2015, and completed a fellowship in musculoskeletal radiology in 2016. In formulating her expert report, the radiologist reviewed and relied on Plaintiff’s medical records from the hospital and the radiology report for Plaintiff’s MRI, as well as his deposition transcript. The radiologist‘s expert report stated that the MRI shows “evidence of a low-grade sprain” of Plaintiff’s “inferior glenohumeral ligament. the radiologist asserts that “[t]his is an unusual finding unless there has been trauma with sudden force on the glenohumeral joint, as the inferior glenohumeral ligament is one of the stabilizers of the joint.” The expert concluded that Plaintiff “suffered trauma to his left shoulder while having his arms pulled behind his back from a prone position” and that the “inferior glenohumeral ligament injury observed on the left shoulder MRI is consistent with this mechanism of injury.” She based her opinion that Plaintiff’s injury was consistent with “sudden force” on the fact that “the ligament would serve in counteracting posterior force on the shoulder and limit posterior shoulder dislocation.” The radiologist also noted that this type of injury would not be detected on radiographs.
Defendants sought to exclude the radiologist‘s testimony because she wasn’t qualified to offer an opinion on Plaintiff’s shoulder injury and that her proffered testimony was neither relevant nor reliable.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni explained in her opinion that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony.
The threshold question for the court was whether the proffered expert testimony was relevant. If so, Judge Caproni said that the court must then determine “whether the proffered testimony has a sufficiently reliable foundation to permit it to be considered.” She noted that the Supreme Court in Kumho Tire Co. listed several factors to consider in making this inquiry, including “whether a theory or technique . . . can be (and has been) tested”; “whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication”; whether uniform “standards controlling the technique’s operation” exist; and whether the theory or technique enjoys “general acceptance” within the relevant scientific or professional community. The court’s ultimate objective is to “to make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.”
Defendants argued that the radiologist‘s conclusions weren’t relevant and therefore must be excluded. But Judge Caproni said that testimony is relevant if it “assist[s] the trier of fact” in understanding and resolving the primary issues in the case. Relevance can be understood as a question of “fit”—”whether expert testimony proffered in the case is sufficiently tied to the facts of the case that it will aid the jury in resolving a factual dispute.”
Plaintiff asserted claims for unlawful arrest and excessive force and argued that the radiologist‘s testimony on an injury sustained from the alleged unlawful arrest and excessive force was directly relevant to both claims—particularly to prove causation and damages. Judge Caproni agreed. In addition to corroborating Plaintiff’s claim that the officers pulled him up by his arm after he was rear-cuffed, evidence of Plaintiff’s injury tended to show that excessive force was used. Further, the judge found that the presence of a sprain eight months after the incident was relevant on the question of damages. Because Plaintiff’s shoulder injury “is at the heart of Plaintiff’s allegations” of excessive force, testimony regarding the injury “should therefore not be kept from the jury on relevance grounds,” the judge opined, quoting a 2000 decision from the court.
Defendants also argued that the radiologist‘s testimony was irrelevant and unhelpful to the jury because the report didn’t explicitly opine that the injury was caused by Defendants’ conduct. Judge Caproni disagreed and found that the radiologist‘s report expressly indicated that the injury was “consistent” with the alleged excessive force and opined that Plaintiff’s injury was “unusual unless there has been trauma with sudden force on the glenohumeral joint as the inferior glenohumeral ligament is one of the stabilizers of the joint.” Judge Caproni held that this was evidence that Defendants’ use of “sudden force” caused Plaintiff’s ligament sprain and was therefore helpful and relevant evidence. Because the substance of the radiologist‘s testimony was “both material and probative,” it wasn’t excluded on relevance grounds.
Next, Defendants contended that the radiologist wasn’t qualified to offer an expert opinion because she was a radiologist, rather than an orthopedist. But Judge Caproni held that a court may admit expert testimony if the witness is “qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.” Expert qualification requirements are liberally construed, and as such, a medical doctor need not be a “specialist in the exact area of medicine implicated by the plaintiff’s injury” in order to serve as an expert witness. Further, if an expert has educational and experiential qualifications in a field “closely related to the subject matter in question, the court will not exclude the testimony solely on the ground that the witness lacks expertise in the specialized areas that are directly pertinent.” Questions about a witness’s qualifications or lack of specialization went to the weight of the expert’s testimony, the judge held, not to its admissibility.
Here, the radiologist was a medical doctor and a board-certified radiologist with specialized training in diagnostic radiology and musculoskeletal radiology. Although the radiologist wasn’t an orthopedist, the fields of radiology and orthopedics are closely related, Judge Caproni opined. As a result, based on her training in diagnostic radiology and the overlap between the fields of orthopedics and radiology, the judge found the radiologist to be qualified to evaluate Plaintiff’s MRI, diagnose a “sprain of the inferior glenohumeral ligament,” and opine as to how such a sprain might have occurred. In short, Defendants’ complaint that the radiologist wasn’t an orthopedist again went to the weight of her opinion, not to its admissibility.
Defendants argued that the radiologist‘s conclusions were unreliable and therefore inadmissible. But Judge Caproni said that in all cases, “the test of reliability is flexible,” and a district court has “the same broad latitude when it decides how to determine reliability as it enjoys in respect to its ultimate reliability determination,” citing Kumho Tire Co. “In certain fields,” she noted, “experience is the predominant, if not sole, basis for a great deal of reliable expert testimony,” quoting Rule of Evidence 702 advisory committee’s note. District courts should only exclude expert evidence based on questionable reliability when “the flaw is large enough that the expert lacks ‘good grounds’ for his or her conclusions;” cross-examination is the appropriate tool by which “reliable, albeit debatable, expert testimony” can be challenged.
In considering the reliability of expert medical testimony, a variety of factors must be considered, the judge explained, including the physician’s training and practical experience, as well as whether she reviewed the patient’s medical records, performed diagnostic tests, and examined the patient.
In this case, Defendants argued that the radiologist‘s proffered testimony was unreliable because she: (i) failed to physically examine Plaintiff; (ii) failed to explain how the sprain is consistent with Defendants’ alleged use of force; and (iii) failed to provide a differential diagnosis.
However, Judge Caproni wrote that because a physical examination isn’t a prerequisite for a medical expert to testify, the fact that the radiologist didn’t physically examine Plaintiff didn’t render her opinion unreliable. The radiologist based her opinion on a review of Plaintiff’s medical records, an analysis of his MRI results, and a review of his deposition transcript. Those sources of information provided the radiologist with “good grounds” for her opinion and ensure that her opinion is “adequately grounded in the methods and procedures of science” and based on “more than subjective belief or unsupported speculation.”
For these reasons, Defendants’ motion to preclude the radiologist from offering her expert report or testifying was denied.