A common theme when ICBC or other personal injury claims go to trial is that of dueling expert witnesses. Often times the Plaintiff’s treating physicians provide an opinion to the Court that is contradicted by experts hired by defendants or insurance companies. In deciding how much the claim is worth a Court must navigate through these competing opinions and decide who to believe.
Treating doctors, due in part to their long term relationship with their patients, sometimes provide their opinion in an argumentative way. While well intentioned such opinions can do more harm than good. The reason being is that the Rules of Court require expert witnesses to be neutral when presenting their opinion to the Court. When experts advocate for one side or another they risk having their opinion discounted or even being excluded from evidence altogether. The potential harm caused by expert advocacy was demonstrated in reasons for judgement released today by the BC Supreme Court, Vernon Registry.
In today’s case (Gendron v. Moffat) the Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle collision in 2008. Fault for the crash was admitted by the opposing motorist focusing the trial on the value of the Plaintiff’s ICBC claim. The Plaintiff sustained various injuries. The Court heard different opinions as to the extent of these from the Plaintiff’s treating doctor and from the expert hired by ICBC.
The Plaintiff’s GP provided the opinion that the Plaintiff suffered from chronic injuries as a result of the Crash. The doctor hired by ICBC disagreed and gave evidence that the accident related injuries largely ran their course and the Plaintiff’s symptoms were better explained by unrelated arthritis. Ultimately Mr. Justice Cole preferred the evidence of ICBC’s doctor. In coming to this conclusion the Court found that the Plaintiff’s doctor acted as an advocate and excluded portions of her evidence and discounted other parts. Mr. Justice Cole provided the following useful comments:
 The doctor summarized her condition as follows:
Ms. Gendron sustained grade 2 strains to her cervical, thoracic and lumbar spines and a grade 2 strain to her right shoulder when she was T-boned in an intersection by a vehicle that had run through a red light. The impact imparted both forward and rotational acceleration forces through Ms. Gendron, and the subsequent symptom pattern and chronology of injury were consistent with the mechanism and severity of injury. Ms. Gendron has consistently demonstrated a high level of motivation to recover from her injuries, and has remained at work since her MVA , albeit in a reduced capacity. [Emphasis added.]
 The last two sentences of that summary I had removed, as in my view, the first sentence dealing with the impact of the accident and acceleration forces were not within the expertise of the doctor and the comment about her high level of motivation demonstrated that the doctor was acting more as an advocate than as an independent professional.
 The doctor was also critical of Dr. T. O’Farell, an orthopaedic surgeon who filed a report and gave evidence at trial. He was of the view that Dr. O’Farell’s report was “below the currently accepted standard for a specialist’s medical legal report.” Again, that sentence was removed on the basis that the family doctor was more of an advocate than an independent professional and lacked the expertise to make such a statement…
 I am of the view that the plaintiff’s family physician, while a highly qualified doctor, is more of an advocate than an independent medical specialist and that it is almost impossible to be objective and an advocate at the same time. I therefore prefer the evidence of Dr. O’Farell that her neck pain is due to arthritis in her spine…
 In conclusion, I find that the injuries sustained by the plaintiff in the motor vehicle accident for which the defendant is liable, have substantially resolved.
While the doctor’s advocacy was not the sole reason for the Plaintiff’s lack of success at trial (The Court also found that the Plaintiff was not a credible witness) it goes to show that an overzealous treating physician can do more harm than good when providing an opinion to the Court. It is important for treating doctors to give their evidence in a fair and balanced manner to maximize the chance of having their opinions accepted at trial.