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Washington Court Rules on When Testimony of a Treating Physician is Required in an Assault Case

On Behalf of | Dec 12, 2018 | Assault

In many criminal cases, whether a defendant is convicted of a greater or lesser offense depends on the state’s evidence against the defendant. As such, if you are charged with a crime, it is important to know what evidence the state intends to introduce against you and seek to exclude any prohibited evidence that may negatively affect your case.

In Washington v. Heyer, the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington affirmed a defendant’s conviction for third-degree assault, finding that testimony of a treating physician was not necessary to lay a foundation for a victim’s medical records to be admitted into evidence at trial. If you face assault charges, you should retain a skilled Washington criminal defense attorney to analyze the facts of your case and assist you in formulating a defense.

Factual Background

Allegedly, the defendant was at a car auction, where he bid on the same car as his victim. After the defendant won the car, the victim stated the defendant could use his commissary money to pay for the car, referring to the defendant’s prior imprisonment. In response, the defendant punched the victim in the face one or two times. The defendant was charged with second-degree assault. He waived his right to a jury and proceeded to a bench trial. During the trial the victim testified his nose would not stop bleeding following the assault and he was referred to a specialist due to a fracture. The defendant’s counsel objected to this testimony on the grounds that it was hearsay.

Reportedly, the state introduced the victim’s medical records, to which the defendant’s counsel also objected. Counsel then stated he advised the prosecutor he did not have to bring in the records custodian but indicated the testimony of the attending physician was necessary to introduce the records. The medical records were admitted and indicated the defendant suffered a fracture.

The defendant was then convicted of third-degree assault, a lesser offense. In its findings of fact, the court stated that the defendant acted with criminal negligence resulting in the victim’s bodily harm that caused substantial pain for an extended time. The defendant appealed, arguing the trial court erred in permitting hearsay testimony, and that the facts or record only established fourth-degree assault, not third-degree assault.

Appellate Court Findings Regarding Hearsay Testimony

On appeal, the court found that the victim’s statements regarding what his treating medical providers told him were, in fact, hearsay and they did not fall under any exception to the rule against hearsay. As such, the court held the trial court committed an error in admitting the statements. The court stated, however, that if improperly admitted evidence is of minor significance, the error committed in admitting the evidence is harmless. The court noted the information imparted by the victim’s statement were of minor significance in light of the fact the medical records were admitted.

The court also held that the medical records were properly admitted. The court noted that typically medical records must be introduced by a custodian of the record or other qualified witness, but noted that defendant’s counsel had stipulated to not having a records custodian present to lay a foundation. The court was not persuaded by the defendant’s argument that stipulating that a records custodian did not need to be called did not excuse the treating physician from testifying for foundational purposes, finding that both were not required to lay a foundation as to the records.

Further, the court explained that records a physician creates in the course of business constitute sound evidence of the conditions described in the records and that the records fell under the business records exception to hearsay. The court found, therefore, the records were properly admitted. Lastly, the court found the evidence of record was sufficient to find that the defendant committed third-degree assault. As such, the court affirmed the trial court ruling.

Retain a Seasoned Washington Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are charged with assault, you should meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss the charges against you and what evidence the state may introduce. The skilled criminal defense attorneys of The Law Offices of Smith and White will work hard to help you obtain a favorable outcome under the circumstances. Contact our offices at 253-363-8662 or via the online form to set up a consultation.