Court Considers It "Unsafe" To Rely on Defence Doctor's Opinion In Chronic Headache Case

In my continued efforts to highlight judicial scrutiny of expert testimony in BC injury litigation, reasons for judgement were released this week by the BC Supreme Court, Nanaimo Registry, finding an expert “displayed a somewhat compromised objectivity” and that it was “unsafe” to rely on his opinion.
In this week’s case (Smith v. Moshrefzadeh) the 54 year old plaintiff was injured in a rear end collision in 2008.  As a result she suffered from soft tissue injuries to her neck and shoulders which caused chronic headaches.  At trial the Defendant produced an orthopaedic surgeon who provided opinion evidence that the probability that the crash resulted in the chronic symptoms was “negligible“.  Madam Justice Dardi did not accept this evidence and provided the following critical comments:
[62]         I accept the opinions of Dr. Helper, Dr. Robinson and Dr. Craig and, where they differed, I prefer their opinions to that of Dr. Wahl.  I found each of Dr. Robinson, Dr. Helper, and Dr. Craig, who are very well-qualified and experienced practitioners, to be careful and fair-minded in their testimony.  Their opinions, without exception, were not weakened in cross-examination.  Each of the doctors persuasively discounted Dr. Wahl’s opinion that the degeneration of Ms. Smith’s cervical spine shown on her x-rays is the cause of her current symptoms.  While Dr. Wahl is no doubt a well-qualified orthopaedic surgeon, his practice is focused on the surgical management, not the medical management, of the spine.  Dr. Wahl clearly had not reviewed Ms. Smith’s medical records as carefully as the other expert witnesses and as I mentioned earlier his report was predicated on a misconception as to the timing  of the onset of Ms. Smith’s symptoms.  Given the significant concessions he made in cross-examination and the Court’s impression that he displayed a somewhat compromised objectivity in preparing his report, I consider it unsafe to rely on his opinion.
In assessing non-pecuniary damages at $80,000 the court provided the following reasons:
[65]         In summary on this point, Ms. Smith’s chronic headaches and neck and upper back pain and discomfort which were caused by the accident have persisted for some three and a half years.  She experiences episodic flare-ups.  The pain fluctuates in intensity and is aggravated by physical activity.  Ms. Smith’s symptoms are exacerbated by the physical demands of the commercial salmon and herring fisheries.  She can no longer engage in the prawn fishery.  She has constant and daily headaches which vary in intensity.  The headaches are usually of a mild to moderate severity, but at least a few times per week they become severe enough that she needs to rest in a quiet environment.  For the most part, however, even though she describes feeling like she is “hanging on by a thread”, she forces herself to carry on with her fishing work and with maintaining her household routines and family life.  In order to carry on, she takes prescription medication on a daily basis.
[66]         There is a possibility that, by undertaking the treatments recommended by the specialists who testified at trial, Ms. Smith will experience some improvement in her symptoms and will be able to manage her pain and discomfort more effectively.  However, I find that it is unlikely that she will make a full recovery to her pre-accident status…
[76]         I have reviewed all of the authorities provided by both counsel.  Although the cases are instructive, I do not propose to review them in detail as they only provide general guidelines.  In broad terms, the cases relied upon by the defence involve plaintiffs with symptoms that had significantly improved by trial.  In considering Ms. Smith’s particular circumstances, I conclude that a fair and reasonable award for non-pecuniary damages is $80,000.

Advocacy in the Guise of Opinion, bc injury law, Madam Justice Dardi, Smith v. Moshrefzadeh

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Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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