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The Society takes a stand in expert testimony


Throughout its history, the Wisconsin Medical Society has not shied away from the hot button issues of the day. In the 1880s, one such issue was a physician’s right to adequate compensation for serving as an expert witness in a trial.

In 1885, the Society spearheaded efforts to pass a bill that would provide compensation “to the value of time employed and the degree of learning or skill required.” At the time, a physician was paid just $1.50 a day if he was called to testify in court. As one Society member put it, “My 40 years’ experience did not enable me to hunt up testimony in cases at $1.50 per day.”

The bill died before it even got off the table in the State Assembly, and according to the minutes from the Society’s Annual Meeting that year, the bill was “buried too deep for resurrection.”

The Society wasn’t deterred, though. In 1889, the Society formed a new committee—and a plan. The committee planned to have a physician test the court—and the law—by refusing to testify if summoned as an expert witness. Society member Frank W. Epley, MD, was named the committee’s chair by fellow member J.M. Dodson, MD.

“I see the doctor is trying to get me in jail, but I will go alright,” Dr. Epley said.

Doctor Epley never went to jail. In fact, he never got the chance to refuse to testify. He was subpoenaed twice as an expert witness, but in one of the cases, he was excused from testifying before he had a chance to refuse and in the other, he only was asked questions of fact.

Eventually, physicians in Wisconsin were given their due compensation for providing medical expert testimony. But several years later, that created another issue: an overabundance of experts and their conflicting “wild and woolly testimony” in court, according to Franklin Walbridge, MD.

In his farewell address in 1904, President Walbridge cautioned members not to fall prey to lawyers, the “tempters,”—he called them—willing to pay anything for physicians’ testimony, but to stay true to the truth.

“When, in the gradual evolution of our social and moral life, honor and a clear conscience become virtues to be striven for by all, then may we look forward to a time when expert testimony in its present discredited state will be replaced by a feeling of respect and a sense of security,” he said.

Test your knowledge:

Known as “Doctor Kate, what Society member was featured on the popular television show “This is Your Life” in 1954? If you know the answer or would like to take a guess, e-mail Jennifer Wieman before noon Wednesday, March 23.

The answer to last week’s question: In 1973, Society member Patricia Stuff, MD, of Bonduel became the first woman officer of the Society when she was elected vice speaker of the State Medical Society House of Delegates. Eleven years later, she ran for speaker of the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates, but lost by roughly 10 votes, according to a profile of her in the 2005 spring issue of the Wisconsin Academy Review.

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