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A Comparison of Defense and Plaintiff Expert Witnesses in Orthopaedic Surgery Malpractice Litigation



According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Standards of Professionalism, the responsible testimony of expert witnesses in orthopaedic surgery malpractice lawsuits is important to the public interest. However, these expert witnesses are recruited and compensated without established standards, and their testimony can potentially sway court opinion, with substantial consequences. The objective of this study was to characterize defense and plaintiff expert orthopaedic surgeon witnesses in orthopaedic surgery malpractice litigation.


Utilizing the WestlawNext legal database, defense and plaintiff expert witnesses involved in orthopaedic surgery malpractice lawsuits from 2013 to 2017 were identified. Each witness's subspecialty, mean years of experience, involvement in academic or private practice, fellowship training, and scholarly impact, as measured by the Hirsch index (h-index), were determined through a query of professional profiles, the Scopus database, and a PubMed search. Statistical comparisons were made for each parameter among defense and plaintiff expert witnesses.


Between 2013 and 2017, 306 expert medical witnesses for orthopaedic cases were identified; 174 (56.9%) testified on behalf of the plaintiff, and 132 (43.1%) testified on behalf of the defense. Orthopaedic surgeons who identified themselves as general orthopaedists comprised the largest share of expert witnesses on both the plaintiff (n = 61) and defense (n = 25) sides. The plaintiff witnesses averaged 36 years of experience versus 31 years for the defense witnesses (p < 0.001); 26% of the plaintiff witnesses held an academic position versus 43% of the defense witnesses (p = 0.013). Defense witnesses exhibited a higher proportion of fellowship training in comparison to plaintiff expert witnesses (80.5% versus 64.5%, respectively, p = 0.003). The h-index for the plaintiff group was 6.6 versus 9.1 for the defense group (p = 0.04). Two witnesses testified for both the plaintiff and defense sides.


Defense expert witnesses held higher rates of academic appointments and exhibited greater scholarly impact than their plaintiff counterparts, with both sides averaging >30 years of experience. These data collectively show that there are differences in characteristics between plaintiff and defense witnesses. Additional study is needed to illuminate the etiology of these differences.

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