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The Fees Of An Expert Witness: When A Surgeon And A Judge Collide

“Gentlemen already members of the Association should…”

“Gentlemen already members of the Association should…”

Every now and then, an expert witness does something monumentally narcissistic on the witness stand. I ran across one such case in the Saturday, February 1, 1896 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

First of all, that date is not a typographical error: JAMA has been around since 1883. It was published weekly, and it cost 10 cents per copy. For those physician bargain hunters, you could get an annual subscription for $5.00. That is roughly $150 per year in today’s dollars. AMA members now pay $119 per year for the same publication, and it is still published weekly.

The case that was highlighted revolved around a civil suit after a woman named Olive Purdy hurt herself on a “defective sidewalk.” She sued the city of Springfield, Illinois.

In its defense, the city called Dr. J. N. Dixon, a local surgeon, as an expert. He was qualified as an expert, and as soon as he was asked a hypothetical question about falling and injuries, he refused to answer. He thought he was entitled to payment as an expert witness, which is not an unusual opinion. He further argued that he could not be forced to testify for free. He demanded that the city pay him his fee of $10 (two whole years of JAMA, delivered straight to your door!) before he answered any questions.

As you might imagine, the judge did not react well. He demanded Dr. Dixon answer questions and when the doctor continued to refuse, the judge fined him $25 ($750 in today’s dollars).

Dr. Dixon was not to be outdone: He appealed his contempt of court citation. The appellate court, however, agreed with the lower court’s ruling.

JAMA took a very strong stance that Dr. Dixon had been wronged, and they cited statutory and case law from other jurisdictions that clearly articulated that experts were entitled to be paid if their testimony is needed “to give a professional opinion on a scientific question,” (p. 235). They also had quite unflattering words for the lower court judge, calling him biased and suggesting he would “cut a very sorry figure,” (p. 234), which I’m pretty sure is a put down.

Dr. Dixon appealed his contempt of court citation and $25 fine to the Illinois Supreme Court. The JAMA article I found was written prior to the court deciding the case, and I couldn’t find the outcome. Someone with access to a better legal database might be able to enlighten us in the comments section.

JAMA concluded its article with the following sentence: “Dr. Dixon is deserving of the highest praise from the profession of his State for the pluck and energy with which he has fought against the unjust ruling which placed him in technical contempt of court,” (p. 235).

Personally, I understand Dr. Dixon’s inclination to want to get paid for his expert witness services. After all, I am an expert witness, and I get paid when I testify. But $10? Even in 1895, that wasn’t all that much money, especially for a surgeon. I’m not sure I would take the stand, stake my ground, get slapped down, and appeal a decision to the Supreme Court over what amounts to about $300 in today’s dollars.

Dr. Dixon, Surgeon. Expert Witness. Stander Upper for Principles. Minor Felon.