On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Docket No. L-001842-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 20, 2011
Before Judges Payne and Hayden.
In this automobile negligence case, plaintiff Carmelina Capasso appeals from the dismissal of her claim against defendants Lisa and John D. Cavaluzzo after the trial judge ruled that her expert witness, a chiropractor, was not qualified to testify concerning his reading of her MRI film results. Because we find that the treating chiropractor was qualified to testify, we reverse.
This matter arose from a motor vehicle accident in which plaintiff's and defendants' vehicles collided. Plaintiff sustained injury to her neck and back and obtained treatment from a New Jersey licensed chiropractor, James L. Wolf, D.C. During the course of her treatment, Dr. Wolf sent plaintiff for an MRI study of the cervical spine, which was performed and interpreted by a radiologist, who found disc herniation in C5-6 and disc bulging in C4-5.
Subsequently, plaintiff brought a civil action against defendants. At the beginning of the trial, the trial judge held an admissibility hearing, pursuant to N.J.R.E. 104(a), to determine if Dr. Wolf was qualified to give expert testimony about his reading of the MRI films. Dr. Wolf testified he was trained to read MRI films as part of his course of study at chiropractic college. The training involved both classroom sessions and clinical work interpreting MRI film results within the context of treating actual patients. Additionally, Dr. Wolf was tested on MRI interpretation as part of both the national and state boards during his licensure process. Dr. Wolf further testified that he had read hundreds of MRI films during his more than ten years of practice and regularly relied on these results in treating his patients.
The trial judge determined that Dr. Wolf's qualifications were insufficient to permit him to testify as an expert concerning interpretation of MRI films. The trial judge explained his reasoning as follows:
[W]hat I was looking for was something beyond what all chiropractors receive in terms of training for MRIs, and we don't have it. . . . I don't see any other training outside of that such as even orthopedics would have, and they tell us about as part of their training in residency or in their fellowships. Or in fact as almost all of them have said, who have testified here and have been qualified, they take additional courses in MRI studies. And while they don't equate themselves to radiologists, they have something more than what the doctor has here. If he had demonstrated some of that other type of education, that follow-up education, I was inclined to say that he's on a par with them. . . . But I don't think there's anything different or that sets this witness apart from other chiropractors to qualify him as a witness - as an expert witness in the reading of MRI films.
Although the judge declined to allow Dr. Wolf to testify about his interpretation of the MRI films, he did indicate that Dr. Wolf could testify based on his clinical evaluation without referring to the MRI results. Because of the limitation on Dr. Wolf's testimony, plaintiff's attorney asserted that plaintiff could not prove her case and would not object to a dismissal of the action. The trial judge granted the dismissal with prejudice.*fn1 This appeal followed.
The narrow issue here is whether Dr. Wolf was qualified by his education and experience to testify to his reading of the MRI films. Initially, defendant argues, based on an ambiguous answer during cross-examination, that Dr. Wolf did not independently read the MRI film but simply relied on the radiologist's report. If this were true, then the judge's ruling would be correct because the MRI report would be hearsay that cannot be admitted as a business record. Agha v. Feiner, 198 N.J. 50, 54 (2009). The court in Agha ruled that a treating doctor's testimony about the results of an MRI that he had not viewed himself constituted inadmissible hearsay. Id. at 58. However, we infer from plaintiff's argument in this appeal that Dr. Wolf is qualified to read MRI films, and that he did so in this case.
In order to inform average jurors about matters beyond their common knowledge, expert testimony is allowed at a trial.
State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178, 208-09 (1984). The expert witness evidence rule, N.J.R.E. 702, provides that:
If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education ...