The Mississippi Supreme Court's struggle with a Rule 702 issue poured over into the criminal arena on Thursday in a decision that could carry implications for medical malpractice suits.
Young v. State marked the Court's latest foray into the discussion over whether nurses can testify as medical experts under Mississippi Rule of Evidence 702. In Young, the State charged a criminal defendant with sexual battery, and to help prove that case, prosecutors offered the testimony of a nurse who examined the victim. The nurse told jurors that, based on her examination, she believed that the victim's injuries were "consistent with blunt penetrating trauma of the vaginal area and the anal area."
As Mississippi Supreme Court watchers are aware, the Court held in 2009 that nurses cannot testify as experts regarding medical causation. In that case, Vaughn v. Mississippi Baptist Medical Center, the Court held that diagnostic matters are necessarily outside the scope of a nurse's expertise. But in Young, the Court found no error in the nurse's testimony: in the Court's view, the nurse did not claim that a blunt penetratration had caused the injuries but, rather, that the injuries she observed were consistent with blunt penetration.
That's a pretty fine distinction, as the Court's votes demonstrated: just four justices concurred fully in the lead opinion, which arguably means it's not controlling law anyway. Justice Kitchens' separate opinion reiterated his previously stated position that nurses should be able to testify as experts in all cases, but it's not clear whether that makes the lead opinion a binding precedent on the nurse-expert issue. There certainly is a good argument that it doesn't.
And there's also a good argument that this decision isn't terribly relevant to medical malpractice. After all, unlike a medical malpractice case, criminal cases don't require expert testimony.
But what is undeniable is this: the question of whether nurses can testify as medical experts is still a subject of deep disagreement at the Court. A total of three justices still believe Vaughn was wrongly decided, and in a little more than two months, the Vaughn opinion's author (Justice Carlson) will no longer be on the Court. So there's no reason to believe that the ground underneath this issue will quit shifting any time soon.