Name: Jennifer L’Hommedieu Stankus, M.D., J.D. Emergency medicine physician at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington
Undergraduate: Chaminade University, Honolulu; University of Colorado, Boulder
Medical school: University of Washington School of Medicine
Law school: University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Internship/Residency: University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
L’Hommedieu Stankus was a captain in the United States Army JAG Corps and Assistant Center Judge Advocate at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center. She was a police officer for the Englewood, Colorado, and University of Colorado police departments. She has worked in a number of leadership positions and has written several publications. Now, she also provides medical expert witness services.
What do you like about being a medical expert witness?
I love being able to work from home on my own schedule because my emergency department schedule is so chaotic. I like having a 9-to-5 schedule with my husband. It’s really nice to be able to have that flexibility and be able to decrease the number of shifts that I work.
What’s the most challenging part of the role?
You need to be credible to do plaintiff and defense work. Testifying against another physician is always difficult because your heart goes out to them. You know that if you go to court, you have to look them in the face and do your job knowing what an impact you could have on their life. On the other hand, when negligence occurs, resulting in injury, the injured person deserves to be compensated.
When you do your job objectively and you’re testifying against another physician, you may experience backlash. You have to be objective and careful in your answers, but you have to know that may happen. Your testimony will be scrutinized much more heavily than if you are defending a doctor. You have to be absolutely certain of your opinion.
Did you go into law before you went into medicine?
I was a medical malpractice attorney prior to becoming an emergency physician, so this is right up my alley. . . . Most physicians who are expert witnesses do not have that background.
What does a medical expert witness do?
It could be insurance fraud or forensic-type work. Most of the time, it’s a medical malpractice case either for the plaintiff or for the defending doctor. What that entails is the medical chart review and then rendering an opinion—sometimes written, often just verbal. Some experts also do independent medical examinations. You also need to provide your own supplemental malpractice insurance.
What surprised you about the expert witness role?
I’m very logical, matter-of-fact and practical. When I see negligence, it deserves to be compensated. I didn’t realize how much heartburn I would have in testifying against my own. I was also surprised that even though I am a former medical malpractice defense attorney, it will take a long time for me to get the business going to the level I want. I’ve been doing this for years, and I am still not where I want to be in terms of volume of cases.
What advice would you give to physicians who want to do this?
They have to know that this is and always will be a side job. It can’t really be full time. The reason is that, in most states, the experts still have to be practicing in their profession at least half the time. That makes sense because they can’t be a subject-matter expert if they are not practicing. However, some retired doctors act as expert witnesses in the states where it is allowed.
Expect that they are going to have to build a website, spend a lot of money on advertising, spend time on sites such as LinkedIn if they are very serious about it. If they have no legal experience, they need to know the courtroom is a totally different setting with different language other than what they are used to in medicine.
The other thing I would say for new physicians is that there are rules about when they can testify as an expert. States may vary, but typically they have to have been practicing in their specialty for a certain number of years.
How does a physician become an expert witness?
Research and understand what the expectations and requirements are and look at expert witness directories.
Lawyers will pull everything out of their hat to make the experts look bad. If that is something that makes them uncomfortable, this is not the job for them.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This can be very exciting. However, they need to always remember that they are NOT the advocate for one side or the other.
As an expert, they are there to objectively review materials and render an opinion. This will, if they are doing their job correctly, go against what the attorney wants on a regular basis. That is normal. They need to be aware that they can be held liable for reports and testimony that are not neutral.
They need to always, always, always be objective and never change or tweak their opinion for the buck, or they will have a bad outcome.