Justices uphold $1.3 million judgment for crash victim

A divided Indiana Supreme Court has affirmed an award of $1.3 million to a woman suffering long-lasting injuries resulting from car wreck. The majority held that evidence of a medical expert witness’s professional license status and reasons for his professional discipline may be admissible to challenge his credibility.

Levetta Tunstall rear-ended Dawn Manning while Manning was waiting at a stop sign, leaving Manning with permanent and chronic pain from back and neck injuries. With little relief from her pain nearly a year after the accident, Manning was informed by medical expert Dr. Steven Paschall that she had reached maximum medical improvement. Due to her limited ability to function normally, a jury awarded Manning $1.3 million.

Tunstall’s motion to correct error was denied, and on appeal she argued that Marion Superior Court abused its discretion by refusing to admit evidence regarding Paschall’s disciplinary history with the Indiana Medical Licensing Board. Paschall was disciplined twice in 30 years, and at the time he examined Manning, Paschall was facing a disciplinary complaint that ultimately resulted in the indefinite probation of his medical license for at least one year.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals found the exclusion of that information to be harmless, and further excluded evidence of the reasons for his past professional discipline. Judge John Baker dissented in a separate opinion, believing that excluding evidence of Paschall’s professional disciplinary history was reversible error.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush, writing for the Indiana Supreme Court majority in a Wednesday opinion, affirmed the jury’s award to Manning, holding that that both types of evidence may be admissible to challenge the expert’s credibility.

“Under the facts of this case, the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded evidence that the expert — doctor’s medical license had been on probation — though the error was harmless,” Rush wrote in Levetta Tunstall v. Dawn Manning, 19S-CT-18. “And the trial court properly excluded evidence of the reasons for the doctor’s professional discipline, as that evidence was inadmissible under certain evidentiary rules.”

Finding both parties partially correct in their arguments, the majority noted that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding Paschall’s license probation, but properly excluded evidence of the reasons for his past professional discipline. The status of his medical license, Rush wrote, was relevant to the credibility of his medical opinion and the probative value of that evidence outweighed any of Evidence Rule 403’s dangers. Any error was harmless however, the majority concluded, finding the fact that Paschall’s medical license had been on probation would have been “a small drop in the large bucket of Tunstall’s evidence attacking his credibility.”

Additionally, it noted that Manning presented substantial and consistent testimony about how her injury had significantly and permanently impacted her life. But the majority found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding why Paschall was disciplined because the evidence was inadmissible under Indiana Evidence Rules 608 and 609.

Writing in a separate dissent, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter opined that though agreed that the exclusion of Paschall’s past licensure status was an abuse of discretion, the error was not harmless.

“The fact and recency of Dr. Paschall’s past professional discipline persuade me that this evidence likely would influence how a reasonable jury weighs his testimony. In my view, the exclusion of this evidence was not only erroneous but also prejudicial,” Slaughter wrote, stating he would reverse the trial court’s judgement and remand for a new damages trial.

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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