An Expert Didn’t Establish The Standard Of Care
Quigley v. McClellan
(Cal. Ct. of App., 4th Dist.), filed March 12, 2013
Karen Quigley bought a horse to use as a competition hunter jumper horse. Before doing so, she had veterinarian Paul McClellan examine the horse to see that it was suitable for use as a competition hunter jumper horse. McClellan reported that the horse was suitable.
Sometime after the purchase, the horse began to manifest physical problems that interfered with its ability to compete. Quigley sued McClellan, arguing that he negligently performed the pre-purchase examination.
At trial, Quigley sought to establish the standard of care and its breach through the testimony of her expert witness, veterinarian Peter Heidmann. Dr. Heidmann was questioned as to the standard of care as follows:
“[Question]: From your general training and experience is there a standard of care applied to veterinarians in prepurchase examinations?”
“[Answer]: There is.”
“[Question]: And can you tell us that standard?”
“[Answer]: A lot depends on the kind of horse. The three critical parts of the prepurchase to me are identifying the problems, documenting them, and then explaining the relevance, potential relevance, of those problems to the client, to the potential buyer.”
Dr. Heidmann further explained “the communication is the most important part [of the prepurchase examination], so to me — not just identifying the problems but discussing the problems in detail in a way that a client can understand it is the critical thing.”
The jury found that McClellan was negligent.
HOLDING & REASONING
The Court of Appeal reversed. It found that Quigley had not actually established the standard of care for a pre-purchase examination.
A veterinarian must exercise the same reasonable degree of skill, knowledge, and care ordinarily possessed and exercised by members of the medical profession under similar circumstances. In order to establish what that degree of skill, knowledge and care is, there must be expert testimony explaining how the average veterinarian of ordinary skill and knowledge from the relevant community would have treated the case under similar circumstances.
Dr. Heidmann never actually testified that McClellan’s performance of the pre-purchase examination, or the subsequent disclosure of the horse’s medical history, was not consistent with what other doctors in the community would have arrived at under similar circumstances in the exercise of reasonable care. Rather, he testified about how it compared to what he would have done.
As a result, there was no evidence of the standard of care and Quigley failed to meet her burden of proof.
This case shows how subtle aspects of an expert’s testimony can make an enormous difference in the outcome of a case.