Martin v. Benson

348 N.C. 684
Brief Filed: 4/97
Court: North Carolina Supreme Court
Year of Decision: 1998

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 421KB)

Issue

Whether a neuropsychologist is competent to testify as to whether the symptoms evidenced by an individual are indications of a closed head injury

Index Topics

Expert Witnesses/Psychologists' Competency; Neuropsychologists' Competency (Brain Injury Assessment)

Facts

Plaintiff Jannett Martin brought a personal injury suit against Industrial Electric Inc., and its driver. Following an accident, she experienced headaches, memory loss and other mental symptoms. At trial, Dr. James Adelman — a neurologist who specializes in treating headaches and who had treated the plaintiff following the collision — testified that, in his opinion, the collision had caused the closed head injury. The defendants presented the testimony of Dr. Elizabeth Gamboa, a neuropsychologist holding a doctorate in clinical psychology and specializing in brain injuries. Based on a psychological evaluation, Dr. Gamboa asserted that the plaintiff's symptoms resulted from the medications she had been taking since the collision and from depression. It was her opinion that Martin had not suffered a closed head injury. The jury awarded partial damages to the plaintiff and she appealed, contending that neuropsychologists are categorically unqualified to testify regarding the existence and physical causes of brain dysfunction. A divided North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed and granted plaintiff a new trial on the ground that the trial court had abused its discretion in admitting the testimony of the neuropsychologist. The court acknowledged that the evidentiary rules provide broad grounds for the admission of expert testimony, but emphasized that North Carolina law prohibits psychologists from practicing medicine. It stated that psychology does not include the diagnosis of medical causation and that Dr. Gamboa's testimony had "invade[d] the field reserved for the practice of medicine in this state." Defendants appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

APA's Position

APA filed an amicus brief addressing the qualification of neuropsychologists to testify as to the existence and physical causes of brain dysfunction. The brief argued that: (1) the appellate court's decision misapplied the liberal standard for the admission of expert testimony and contradicts other decisions of the North Carolina Supreme Court; (2) the decision below reflected a significant misunderstanding of the diagnostic process regarding psychological dysfunction, as well as the science and practice of neuropsychology; and (3) it would be highly unfortunate if a categorical exclusion of useful expert testimony — unjustified legally and factually — were to become the rule in North Carolina.

Results

The Supreme Court did not address the merits of the case. Although the decision preserved the expert's testimony, it was based on the narrow procedural grounds that the plaintiff driver had waived the right to appellate review of the admissibility of Dr. Gamboa's neuropsychological testimony by failing to object at trial.