Professor Patrick Garon-Sayegh of the Faculty of Law, an expert on rules of evidence, explores the limits of the quest for truth when lawyers are defending their clients’ interests.
If a surgeon amputates a patient’s left leg instead of the right, it’s easy to prove malpractice in court. But not all cases are so clear. It isn’t always easy to prove that a doctor should have done something different or performed one procedure instead of another.
That’s when you need an expert witness. Patrick Garon-Sayegh, a new assistant professor in Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Law, has been studying expert opinions for years. His work on fundamental evidentiary issues lies at the intersection of philosophy of science, philosophy of law, and rhetoric, or the theory of persuasion.
“The law of evidence sets limits on the freedom the parties enjoy in supporting their claims before a judge: the parties are free, but within certain limits that serve to advance the quest for truth but also sacrifice it, to some extent, to safeguard other values and interests, such as privacy and attorney-client privilege,” Garon-Sayegh explained.
Longstanding fascination with the law
They say law can lead to many careers. In Garon-Sayegh’s case, it was music that led him to law.
“As a teenager, I wasn’t very motivated at school and I wasn’t a good student,” he recalled. “Music taught me to be more structured. I was passionate about music and was thinking of making it my career.”
In the early 2000s, he studied communications and sound production while composing, recording and regularly performing on electric bass. He graduated with distinction from Concordia University with a bachelor’s degree in communications in 2005. He entered the law program at McGill University the following year.
“I’d long had an abstract fascination with the law but it scared me,” he said. “However, I had done well in communications and gained some maturity, so that gave me the confidence to go into law.”
After completing his degree, Garon-Sayegh worked for a national law firm from 2011 to 2015. When he had to defend clients in complex cases related to the environment or construction, he would turn to expert witnesses, such as engineers and urban planners.
Understanding professional liability
At the same time, health problems led him to consult various medical professionals. He received good care, but the experience got him thinking about why doctors choose one medical procedure over another.
“I wanted to change course, so I started a master’s degree to study law as it relates to bioethics and medical ethics,” he recalled. “And I was thinking I might pursue further graduate studies.”
He decided to do so. In 2017, immediately after graduating from McGill’s LLM program, he embarked on doctoral studies at the University of Toronto.
In his thesis, Garon-Sayegh studied how expert medical opinions are used to prove malpractice in medical liability cases.
“My goal was to understand the origins of rules of medical practice and how malpractice can be proved,” he said. “And since the people you’re suing are experts, you need the opinions of other experts to prove that the doctor made a mistake.”
Science doesn’t always have the last word on every medical act. “We saw that during the pandemic: the science wasn’t the only consideration in the decisions that were made, and the same is true in clinical medicine,” he said.
Each case is different
Garon-Sayegh starts teaching evidence in civil cases in January. He wants his students to be fully cognizant of their own responsibility for the quality of their reasoning, “not only in their narrow task as lawyers pleading a case in court but also in all the concrete problems they will encounter as lawyers and notaries: they will have to avoid cookie-cutter solutions and constantly question themselves,” he said. “They will have to shoulder the responsibility that comes with professional freedom.
“And I want to convey to them the importance of paying attention to the client’s specific situation so that justice can be done. Law and medicine have this in common: patients and clients want to be treated not as numbers but as human beings. Evidentiary law is about paying attention to the details. And to do that, you have to listen.”