Arizona top court OKs qualifications for expert witnesses

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The Arizona Supreme Court has upheld a law that sets the minimum qualifications for expert witnesses in medical malpractice cases.

In order to discourage frivolous lawsuits, the Arizona law requires experts to certify that the malpractice allegations raise legitimate issues before a case can proceed. These experts must be active practitioners or teachers in the same specialty as the accused physician.

Last year, Arizona's Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that by defining those qualifications the legislature encroached on the judiciary's prerogative to set its own procedures. Now, the state Supreme Court has overturned that decision 4-1, deciding that the statute does not violate the separation of powers doctrine.

“Although we maintain power over procedural rules,” Justice Andrew Hurwitz writes in the majority opinion, “we do not believe that power precludes the legislature from addressing what it believes to be a serious substantive problem: the effects on public health of increased medical malpractice insurance rates and the reluctance of qualified physicians to practice here.”

“This is a very important decision, a huge decision,” says Chic Older, executive vice president of the Arizona Medical Association. “We feel it's a benchmark ruling that is important for other states as their courts look at tort reform in terms of separation of powers.”

Since the law was passed in 2005, the number of malpractice cases has dropped more than 20% and insurance premiums from MICA, a physician-owned mutual and Arizona's biggest insurer of physicians, have gone down 11% overall, Older notes.

“The statute had a very profound effect right away,” he adds. “It worked exactly as we thought it would. Doctors who really are experts are reluctant to certify cases that don't have merit.”
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