Experts in Medical Malpractice Cases: The Case of Meehan v. Antonellis

Aug 27, 2014
Paul M. da Costa

In order to prove that there was some type of wrong in a medical malpractice case, the testimony of a medical expert is necessary in almost all cases.  The New Jersey legislature has made it clear that courts should examine whether there is appropriate expert testimony before allowing a case to continue.  Through the Affidavit of Merit statute, codified at N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-26-29, plaintiffs are required to submit an Affidavit of Merit, or a document providing the court with proof that their claim is not frivolous, or meritless.

In the recent Appellate Division case of Meehan v. Antonellis, defendant-dentist fitted plaintiff with an oral device to help with his sleep apnea.  Defendant assured the plaintiff that his teeth would not shift as a result of the device.  Plaintiff’s teeth, however, shifted drastically, causing gaps that in some places needed to be filled by the insertion of a crown.  In addition, plaintiff alleged that he experienced headaches, pain, and a worsening of his sleep condition.

Plaintiff was required to submit an Affidavit of Merit pursuant to New Jersey law.  An Affidavit of Merit is a document signed by an appropriate medical specialist that must be provided by a plaintiff in a malpractice or negligence case.  The Affidavit of Merit provides that medical expert’s opinion as to whether the defendant did not exercise the care that he or she should have, and therefore, the plaintiff has a legitimate claim.  Relevant case law, and specifically the case of Nicholas v. Mynster, 213 N.J. 463 (2013), has clarified that the Affidavit of Merit must be from a doctor who specializes in the same field or subfield as the defendant-doctor, as long as the treatment involved that specialty or subspecialty.

In Meehan, plaintiff obtained an Affidavit of Merit from a licensed dentist who specialized in prosthodontics and the treatment of sleep apnea.  Defendant argued that the Affidavit of Merit was insufficient because the expert was a dentist, and the defendant was an orthodontist.  On the other hand, plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to state that he was an orthodontist in his answer and that defendant had treated the plaintiff using his skills as a dentist, not those of an orthodontist.  The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the trial court.  The Appellate Division stated that the defendant and the expert clearly had different specialties—the defendant was an orthodontist, while the expert was a dentist with a specialty in prosthodontics and sleep apnea.  Furthermore, even though the defendant failed to state his specialty in his answer, the failure to do so did not harm the overall case.  There was no harm because the plaintiff knew that the defendant was an orthodontist.

If you or a loved one has been injured by a doctor or dentist and may have a malpractice claim, you should contact an attorney about your case.  Obtaining an appropriate expert and complying with the law is not easy to do without the help of an experienced medical malpractice attorney, like those at Sarno da Costa D’Aniello Maceri LLC.  Call us today at 973-274-5200 for help with your case.