The “Common Knowledge” Exception to the Expert Testimony Requirement

Brouwer v. Sisters of Charity Providence Hospitals, — S.E.2d — (S.C. 2014)

This decision provides a useful application and some good illustrations of the “Common Knowledge” doctrine. Under South Carolina law, a medical malpractice allegation requires no support by expert testimony when it “lies within the ambit of common knowledge and experience, so that no special learning is needed to evaluate the conduct of the defendant.” S.C. Code Ann. § 15–36–100(C)(2) (Supp. 2013).

This doctrine was invoked by a patient who suffered a severe allergic reaction while she was treated at a hospital. The patient attributed the reaction to her latex allergy, which she disclosed to the hospital upon her admission. Following that disclosure, the hospital issued the patient a wrist band that identified the latex allergy.

In the ensuing suit for malpractice, the patient argued that she was exempted from the general obligation to file an expert testimony.

The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed:

“We find the substance of [the patient’s] allegation, i.e., that the negligent exposure of a patient to latex with a known allergy can result in an allergic reaction in that patient, is a matter within the common knowledge or experience so that no special learning is needed to evaluate [the hospital’s] conduct at the pre-litigation stage.”

The Court accompanied this ruling with a number of useful precedents: Green v. Lilliewood, 249 S.E.2d 910 (S.C. 1978) (holding tubal ligation rendering intrauterine device and other birth control device useless constitutes a matter of common knowledge); Thomas v. Dootson, 659 S.E.2d 253 (S.C.Ct.App.2008) (recognizing expert testimony was not required for claim arising from a surgical drill that burned skin on contact because claim would fall within the common knowledge or experience of laymen); Hickman v. Sexton Dental Clinic, 367 S.E.2d 453 (S.C.Ct.App.1988) (holding evidence presented was sufficient for the jury to infer without the aid of expert testimony a breach of duty to dental patient where patient testified an unsupervised dental assistant rammed a sharp object into patient’s mouth).