The Indiana Supreme Court ruled this past week that a psychologist is qualified to testify on behalf of a plaintiff in a personal injury case as to the cause of a traumatic brain injury

Plaintiff was injured in a rear end collision, sustaining injuries to his neck and back. Plaintiff underwent a neuropsychological evaluation with Dr. Sheridan McCabe, a psychologist. The plaintiff had been experiencing headaches and memory loss since the accident, but had not been previously diagnosed with having sustained a brain injury. After reviewing the plaintiff’s medical records and his deposition, as well as interviewing the plaintiff and his wife, Dr. McCabe administered a battery of neuropsychological tests. Dr. McCabe opined thereafter that the plaintiff had “experienced a traumatic brain injury in the accident.” 

Three times during the litigation, defendant objected to Dr. McCabe testifying as an expert witness, each time challenging the admissibility of the psychologist’s testimony that plaintiff experienced a traumatic brain injury in the accident. After the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor, defendant appealed, contending that the trial court erred when it permitted the psychologist to testify that plaintiff had sustained a traumatic brain injury in the crash. On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, reversed, and remanded the case for a new trial. Bennett v. Richmond, 932 N.E. 2nd 704 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), reh’g denied. The Indiana Supreme Court then granted transfer of the case. 

The Indiana Supreme Court acknowledged initially that “while there is little dispute that a psychologist may testify as to the existence of a brain injury, or the condition of the brain in general, the specific issue in the case was whether a psychologist or a neuropsychologist may testify as to the cause of a brain injury. “ The Court reviewed decisions from other jurisdictions, noting that the issue was one that had divided jurisdictions.

The Indiana Supreme Court, while disagreeing with the result reached by the Indiana Court of Appeals, agreed with the analysis that the Appellate Court took in deciding the issue.  The Supreme Court found the issue of whether a psychologist could testify had to be decided pursuant to Rule 702, which sets forth the criteria needed (knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education which would assist the trier of fact).   The Supreme Court noted that under Rule 702, there was no per se rule banning a psychologist from testifying as to the cause of an injury.

Defendant’s main objection was that Dr. McCabe, a psychologist, was not a “medical doctor” and therefore was not qualified to render an opinion as to causation.  The Court reviewed Dr. McCabe’s qualifications, as well as the methodology he used in reaching his conclusions that the accident was the cause of plaintiff’s brain injury.  The Court noted that Dr. McCabe had interviewed both the plaintiff and his wife, reviewed the plaintiff’s medical records, and deposition, and had conducted a series of tests.

The Indiana Supreme Court totally rejected the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that the psychologist was not qualified under Rule 702 in that in its ruling that “a psychologist who is not a medical doctor, but is otherwise qualified under Rule 702 to offer expert testimony as to the existence and evaluation of a brain injury is not qualified to offer his or her opinion as to its cause without demonstrating some medical expertise in determining etiology of brain injuries.”  Bennett, 932 N.E. 2nd at 709¬-10. 

In its decision, the Indiana Supreme Court noted, “we think that the Court of Appeal s imposed more stringent requirements on Dr. McCabe than are required under Rule 702.”  The Court found that Dr. McCabe had the requisite education, training, and knowledge to render the opinion and that his methodology was sound. 

Lastly, defendant argued that Dr. McCabe was not qualified to give the opinion as to causation because he was not a neuropsychologist, only a psychologist.  The Supreme Court found that although Dr. McCabe did not claim to be  a neuropsychologist, the Court noted that “even if we were to require under Rule 702 qualifications similar to those of a neuropsychologist to testify in this manner” that Dr. McCabe’s qualifications were sufficient to fall under the definition of a neuropsychologist.  The Court concluded by find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Dr. McCabe was qualified to offer his opinion as the cause of plaintiff’s brain injury.

Finally, the Indiana Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeals conclusion that even if Dr. McCabe were qualified to opine as to the cause of plaintiff’s brain injury,  his testimony lacked probative value because he did not testify regarding the mechanics of the accident or describe the force or speed of the impact.  Bennett 932 N.E. 2nd at 711.  The Indiana Supreme Court rejected this analysis.