Defense Use Of Plaintiffs' Treaters As Experts In MDL Disallowed

The Magistrate Judge in the Kugel Mesh Hernia Repair Patch MDL has refused to allow defendants to retain as experts any physicians who have treated any of the plaintiffs. See In re: Kugel Mesh Hernia Repair Patch Litigation, MDL Docket No. 07-1842ML (Order 9/19/08).

The Court had previously ordered that defendants were precluded from engaging in substantive ex parte communications with plaintiffs’ treating physicians. Defendants proposed, however, to have the ability to retain a plaintiff’s treating physician as a consulting or testifying expert as long as they do not call the expert in his/her patient’s case and refrained from discussing with him/her the medical history of that patient/plaintiff.

The Court saw the motion as requiring it to balance the trust and confidentiality embodied
in the physician-patient relationship against a litigant’s right to reasonably assemble and present a defense.

The reality of some mass torts is that:

-the sheer number of plaintiffs may preclude defendants from retaining any consultants who are not also treating physicians of some plaintiffs;

-this is especially true in the case of medical devices in which the experts in the devices are experts mainly because they treat people using those devices;

-in mass torts, with thousands of cases in multiple venues, defendants need multiple experts;

-allowing defendants access to treaters -- who are not automatically experts for the plaintiff, but who possess knowledge needed by both sides – may accelerate the discovery process.

The Court here, however, adopted the balancing performed by the Rhode Island Superior Court, which currently sees more than 1000 of these cases. See In re: All Individual Kugel Mesh Cases, 2008 R.I. Super. LEXIS 101 (R.I. Super. August 26, 2008). The state court concluded that any “potential inconvenience” to defendants in engaging experts was “significantly outweighed” by plaintiffs’ right to confidentiality in their medical matters. Id. at *9.

The Court may have given insufficient weight to the protection available from the fact that the treater, if consulted by the defense on plaintiff X, is under an independent ethical duty not to disclose confidential information about patient Y. And the doctor is always available to be deposed about whether he or she was even asked any questions about a patient.

The Court criticized the defendants for not specifically identifying the “small group of hernia repair specialists” who were inevitable, likely treaters of one or more plaintiffs. (“The fact that only one surgeon to date has fallen into the consultant/treating physician category belies Defendants’ claims of prejudice.”) However, generally, and without any knowledge of this specific MDL, MassTortDefense would assert that the issue was not whether defendants had already identified many potential experts who were also treaters. The prejudice comes when defendants cannot find qualified experts who are not treaters and thus must turn to the treater pool –even if they haven’t already done so and thus cannot identify the specific overlapping people. Defendant has no easy way, absent revealing substantial confidential work product, of showing that it cannot find adequate and sufficient experts without resort to the treater pool. Courts, particularly MDL courts, may need to seek a deeper understanding of the reality of expert retention.