Experts in Administrative Law Cases - Articles

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Posted by: Lynn Pointer on Apr 15, 2013

            Many people are familiar with the jury process in civil cases—a jury is empanelled, questioned, challenged, and finally selected.  In administrative law cases, however, the jury cannot be questioned, cannot be challenged, and will rely upon their own knowledge and experience to determine whether a professional’s license should be revoked.  Given this, the question becomes do you have to present expert testimony to a panel of experts?

            The seminal case dealing with experts in Tennessee administrative law cases is Martin vs. Sizemore, 78 S.W.3d 249 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001).  In that case, an architect’s license was suspended for three years without any expert proof by the State.  The matter was appealed to the Chancery Court where it was reversed, and the State then appealed to the Court of Appeals.  There, the Court of Appeals held that if there are questions that “involve technical issues beyond the common knowledge, experience, and understanding of persons who are not registered professionals,” expert testimony is required.  Id. at 268.  While the board members may be experts in the proceedings, the Court specifically stated that the board members may not substitute their own experience in a situation where an expert is needed.  Id. at 269.  Specifically, the Respondent must be allowed an opportunity to face his/her accusers and allowing the board to insert their own expert opinion would prevent cross examination of all involved witnesses.  Id.

            As with all rules, there is a general exception to this rule.  Specifically, the Sizemore Court stated the common knowledge exception which applies to professional negligence cases also applies to administrative hearings.  Namely, “expert testimony regarding the applicable standard of care and the breach thereof may be dispensed with when the acts of negligence are so obvious that they come within the common knowledge of lay persons.”  Id. at 272.  What facts would support such a standard?  The Court said that this must be determined on a case by case basis.

            Given the Sizemore case and its progeny, this issue presents a great challenge for both sides.  If an act was so heinous that any person on the streets could say “that’s malpractice,” then it may meet the common knowledge exception.  If, however, the act involves technical knowledge which is required under Rule 702, the respondent may have a chance to win if no expert testimony is presented.  Ultimately, it will be left for the “jury” to decide.

Author:  David R. Grimmett,
Grimmett Law Firm, PLLC (Nashville)

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