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Robert Baker v. University Physicians Healthcare, et al. - 3/12/2013

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That in Medical Malpractice Cases, an Expert’s "Specialty" Under ARS § 12-2604 May Be a Subspeciality if the Expert Spends a Majority of His or Her Time Practicing or Teaching in That Specialty.

Plaintiff Robert Baker brought a wrongful death action against Dr. Brenda Wittman, her spouse, and her employer when his daughter died under defendants’ care.  Dr. Wittman was a board certified pediatrician with a subspeciality in pediatric hematology-oncology; Baker’s expert, Dr. Robert Bruillard, was board certified in internal medicine with a subspeciality in hematology and medical oncology.  The American Board of Medical Specialties (“ABMS”) recognizes pediatrics and internal medicine as “specialties” and pediatric hematology-oncology and hematology and medical oncology as “subspecialties.” 

Defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that Dr. Bruillard was not qualified to be an expert under § 12-2604.  Under the statute, an expert who testifies about the standard of care in a medical malpractice case must be a specialist “who is board certified in that specialty or claimed specialty.”  The statute, however, does not define the terms “specialty” or “board certified.”

The trial court granted defendants summary judgment, holding that Dr. Bruillard was not qualified to testify because unlike Dr. Wittman, he was not certified in pediatric hematology-oncology.  The Court of Appeals agreed that Dr. Bruillard could not testify under the statute, but defined Dr. Wittman’s relevant “specialty” as pediatrics, rather than pediatric hematology-oncology.  Accordingly, it reversed in part and remanded the case to allow Baker to find a new expert who was board certified in pediatrics.  The Arizona Supreme Court granted review in order to clarify the meaning of the term “specialty” in § 12-2604.

The Court vacated the court of appeals’ decision and explained that the legislature’s intent in enacting § 12-2604 was to enable only physicians with “comparable training and experience” to testify as experts in medical malpractice cases. Thus, it disagreed with the court of appeals that “specialty” referred solely to the 24 specialties recognized by ABMS and did not include subspecialties, holding instead that “the subspeciality is itself a specialty.”  It found the court of appeals’ definition of “specialty” unreasonable because it would allow a pediatrician who did not practice in hematology-oncology to offer an expert opinion  about the care provided by a pediatric hematologist-oncologist.  The Court concluded that the relevant “specialty” may be a subspeciality if the physician spends a majority of his or her time practicing or teaching in that specialty, and remanded the case to the trial court to allow Baker to identify an expert with proper qualifications.

Finally, the Supreme Court dismissed Baker’s contentions that if Dr. Brouillard was not qualified as an expert, the statute was unconstitutional.  The Court held that the statute did not preclude medical malpractice plaintiffs from recovery, was rationally related to a legitimate interest in decreasing medical malpractice insurance rates, and did not violate Arizona’s prohibition against the enactment of “special laws.”

Justice Scott Bales authored the unanimous opinion.

Posted by: Yaser Ali

Posted On: 3/25/2013