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Carmelina Capasso v. Lisa A. Cavaluzzo and John D. Cavaluzzo

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 26, 2012

CARMELINA CAPASSO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LISA A. CAVALUZZO AND JOHN D. CAVALUZZO, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, Docket No. L-001842-09.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

The Supreme Court has set out a three-part test to guide courts in determining whether to admit expert testimony. First, the parties seeking to introduce the testimony must show that it will assist lay jurors in understanding subject matter beyond the sphere of knowledge of the average juror. Kelly, supra, 97 N.J. at 208-09. Second, the party must show that the testimony is reliable; the field the testimony concerns must have a sufficient scientific basis to produce uniform and reasonably reliable results. Id. at 209. Last, the party must establish that a particular witness has sufficient experience to offer the intended testimony. Ibid. See State v. Henderson 208 N.J. 208, 297 (20l1); State v. Jenewicz, 193 N.J. 440, 454 (2008). These requirements are to be construed liberally in light of the legislature's inclination to admit expert testimony. State v. Rosales, 202 N.J. 549, 562 (2010).

It is well settled that in order to qualify as an expert under N.J.R.E. 702, "an expert witness must possess the minimal technical training and knowledge essential to the expression of a meaningful and reliable opinion." State v. Frost, 242 N.J. Super. 601, 614 (App. Div.) (citing Hake v. Manchester Twp., 98 N.J. 302, 315 (1985)), certif. denied, 127 N.J. 321 (1990). An expert may be qualified by "study without practice or by practice without study." Frost, supra, 242 N.J. Super. at 615 (internal citations omitted). We are mindful that we should only reverse a trial judge's decision to admit or exclude expert testimony if there was an abuse of discretion. Rosales, supra, 202 N.J. at 562-63; Jenewicz, supra, 193 N.J. at 455.

Nevertheless, our courts have adopted a liberal approach when assessing an expert witness' qualifications. Id. at 454. Courts allow any weakness in an expert's background to be explored on cross-examination and avoid using such vulnerabilities as a reason to exclude a party's choice of expert witness altogether. Id. at 455. Rather, a court should simply be satisfied that the expert has a basis in knowledge, skill, education, training or experience to allow him to form an opinion that can aid jurors on a subject that is beyond their knowledge. Ibid.

Based upon these principles, we view as an abuse of discretion the trial judge's opinion that Dr. Wolf was not qualified to testify concerning his reading of plaintiff's MRI films. As the trial judge acknowledged, there is no per se ban on a chiropractor testifying to his or her reading of MRI films. Brun v. Cardoso, 390 N.J. Super. 409, 421-22 (App. Div. 2006). However, the trial judge required Dr. Wolf to have additional training in MRI reading in order to testify as an expert. We reject that requirement as unreasonable.

The record clearly shows that Dr. Wolf had the minimum qualifications through education and experience to interpret MRI film results. Dr. Wolf had training, including clinical experience, in chiropractic college concerning the reading of MRIs, he was required to pass state and national boards that included testing of his knowledge of MRI film reading, and in his practice he has read hundreds of MRIs and treated people based upon his interpretation of the results. Moreover, the extent of his knowledge could be tested through cross-examination. The trial judge's requirement that Dr. Wolf have extra training beyond that necessary to obtain a chiropractor's license was not supported by the record and was not reasonable under the circumstances.

Consequently, since Dr. Wolf's testimony interpreting plaintiff's MRI films should not have been barred, we are obliged to reverse and remand for a new trial.

Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.


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