Supreme Court Allows Admission of Expert Testimony Concerning Symptom Magnification

Mar 22, 2019

In a case involving a personal injury, the Supreme Court recently held that the admissibility of expert testimony utilizing such terms as “somatization” and “symptom magnification” must be determined by trial courts on a case-by-case basis, consistent with Evidence Rule 403.  Rodriguez v. Wal-Mart, - N.J. – (2019).

Plaintiff, Alexandra Rodriguez, was struck by a falling clothing display rack in Wal-Mart. She sued Wal-Mart and the trial court permitted one of defendant’s experts to testify that plaintiff’s “psychological features” were contributing to her complaints of pain.  He explained to the jury that somatization is a clinical state where one would present at different times with different complaints and in the absence of a medical cause, that type of history would be referred to as a somatoform disorder.  The trial court let a second expert testify that given plaintiff’s psychiatric history and long history of chronic pain, her complaints reflected psychological issues. 

A jury found that plaintiff failed to prove negligence and entered a no-cause of action in favor of Wal-Mart.  The Appellate Division reversed the verdict holding that medical opinions characterizing a plaintiff as a “malingerer” or a “symptom magnifier” is categorically disallowed in a civil jury trial under Evidence Rule 403.  The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the jury’s verdict.

The Supreme Court first held that the testimony of defendant’s experts was relevant under Rule 401 because there were significant inconsistencies between the objective medical evidence and plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain. The court then determined that expert testimony about plaintiff’s possible “somatization” and “symptom magnification” was admissible because any risk of undue prejudice was substantially outweighed by the significant probative value of the testimony and, therefore, not barred by Rule 403.

The court noted that while no expert used the term “malingering,” future courts should apply a Rule 403 balancing test in the event a defense expert intends to so testify. 

The Supreme Court then held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting proof of plaintiff’s past medical history, including her psychiatric history.  The court noted that under the circumstances of the case, plaintiff’s extensive medical history was logically related to the issues of proximate causation damages and pre-existing injury because there was a lack of objective medical evidence to support some of her injury claims.