Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Medical License Necessary for Doctor to Testify as Expert Witness in Health Care Liability Lawsuit

April 20, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, has held that a doctor who was permitted to practice medicine in Tennessee without a license under a statutory exemption does not meet the requirements of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act to testify as an expert witness in a lawsuit against another doctor.

The Tennessee Health Care Liability Act requires a person who sues a doctor for medical negligence to have an expert witness testify to the applicable standard of care, a deviation by the doctor from the standard of care, and that the deviation caused the injury. The expert witness must have been licensed to practice medicine and must have practiced medicine in Tennessee or a bordering state during the year before the alleged wrongful conduct occurred.

In December 2011, Thomas J. Killian, M.D., performed a cardiac procedure on Randall Josh Young at TriStar Centennial Medical Center in Nashville. Two days later, Mr. Young died from a stroke. Mr. Young’s wife, Vickie S. Young, sued Dr. Killian and his medical group, Frist Cardiology, PLLC, in the Davidson County Circuit Court. She claimed that Dr. Killian failed to monitor her husband properly before and during the procedure and that he should not have performed the procedure on a patient in Mr. Young’s medical condition. Mrs. Young identified Jason A. Rytlewski, M.D., as the expert witness who would testify that Dr. Killian’s care was negligent and resulted in her husband’s death. Dr. Rytlewski was not licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee or a bordering state during the year before Mr. Young’s death, but he was in a fellowship program at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine during that time. Tennessee law allows doctors to practice medicine without a medical license for the limited purpose of their training in a fellowship program. The circuit court ruled that Dr. Rytlewski was qualified to testify as an expert witness because he was exempt from the licensure requirement during his fellowship at Vanderbilt. The circuit court allowed the defendants to request appellate review of this ruling. The Court of Appeals declined to hear the case, but the Supreme Court granted the appeal.

In the unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s ruling, holding that Dr. Rytlewski was not qualified to testify as an expert witness. The Court noted that it was bound by the intent of the Tennessee Legislature in enacting the Health Care Liability Act and was required to give effect to every word and phrase of the Act as written. Under the plain language of the Act, the Legislature intended two separate requirements for a medical expert witness—that the witness be licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee or a bordering state and that the witness be practicing medicine in Tennessee or a bordering state—and the Court was required to give effect to both of these requirements. The Court concluded that practicing medicine under a statutory licensure exemption was not sufficient to satisfy the Act’s first requirement—that the witness be licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee or a bordering state--and therefore Dr. Rytlewski was not qualified to testify as an expert witness in this case.

To read the opinion of the Court in Young v. Frist Cardiology, PLLC, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.