Can I File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit for an Anesthesia Error?

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Anesthesia is a complicated practice that involves administering the precise amount of medication that will prevent the patient from experiencing any pain during the procedure. There are many types and combinations of medication that are used, and it is the responsibility of the anesthesiologist to determine the most effective option for the patient. This decision is based on a wide range of factors, including the type of procedure that is being performed, how long the procedure is expected to last, and whether the patient has any serious risk factors to consider. If the anesthesiologist makes a mistake during this complex process, it can cause the patient to suffer serious health complications. An experienced medical malpractice lawyer can determine if negligence was involved and assist that patient with filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

The Different Types of Anesthesia

Anesthesia is a type of medication, or combination of medications, that prevents patients from feeling pain during a medical procedure such as surgery. These medications are administered by trained anesthesiologists who have completed four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, and four years of residency. The type of anesthesia the patient will require will depend on the type of medical procedure that the patient needs. The three types of anesthesia include the following:

  • Local anesthesia: Numbs a specific area and is often used in dental procedures.
  • Regional anesthesia: Numbs a larger area of the body. Examples include spinal blocks and epidurals. This type of anesthesia may be used for procedures such as cesarean sections or repairing a hip fracture.
  • General anesthesia: The medication induces unconsciousness and is used for more major surgeries.

Anesthesiologists are also responsible for ensuring that patients are moved after undergoing a lengthy procedure. This is important because, if a patient remains in the prone position for too long, the optic nerve can become damaged, resulting in postoperative blindness. The surgical procedures that are most likely to cause blindness are back fusion surgeries and cardiac surgery because these tend to be very long procedures.

Common Anesthesia Complications

Complications associated with anesthesia can occur if the anesthesiologist administers too much, too little, or the wrong medication. Some are more serious than others. For example, postoperative pain and nausea/vomiting are fairly common but not serious. More serious complications, including waking up during surgery, are quite rare. In fact, only about 0.2 percent of patients, or two out of every thousand, experience this serious complication. The following are examples of the most common anesthesia complications:

  • Anaphylaxis, which is a serious allergic reaction from the anesthesia
  • Anesthesia awareness, which occurs when the patient regains consciousness during the operation
  • Blood clots
  • Brain damage due to a lack of oxygen
  • Death
  • Delirium or temporary mental confusion
  • Heart attack
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nerve injury
  • Pneumonia
  • Postoperative pain
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Sore throat and/or damage to the larynx
  • Stroke
  • Tooth damage from placing of the breathing tube during the operation

Who is at Risk for Anesthesia Complications?

For the majority of patients, going under anesthesia is a fairly routine procedure, from which they emerge without any serious complications. However, for certain patients, anesthesia comes with a range of health risks. It is the anesthesiologist’s responsibility to be aware of these risks and to take the appropriate precautions to prevent serious, even life-threatening complications. For example, patients who are taking blood thinners, are heavy smokers, or who have had a bad reaction to anesthesia in the past may be vulnerable to anesthesia complications. Patients with the following conditions are also at an increased risk of serious health complications related to anesthesia:

  • Diabetes
  • Drug allergies
  • Heart, kidney, or lung problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Seizures
  • Sleep apnea

Most Common Anesthesia Errors

Like other health care providers, anesthesiologists are human and capable of making mistakes.  Unfortunately, their mistakes can cause serious health complications for the patient. Depending on the nature of the mistake and whether negligence was involved, the patient may be able to file a medical malpractice claim. The following are examples of common anesthesia errors:

  • Dosage errors: It is crucial that the anesthesiologist administer the correct dose of the anesthesia medication. If the patient is not given enough medication, he or she could wake up during surgery. This is known as anesthesia awareness. Too much medication could cause the patient to suffer organ damage or go into a coma. Administering the wrong medication is also a serious error.
  • Aspiration: When a patient is under anesthesia, their esophagus loses its reflexes. Aspiration occurs when the patient is unable to swallow, causing food, liquid, or vomit to pass into the windpipe and lungs. This can lead to aspiration pneumonia, which is a serious lung injury that makes it difficult for patients to get enough oxygen.
  • Preoperative errors: The anesthesiologist has a duty to thoroughly review the patient’s medical records and history to determine whether he or she is allergic to any medications. In addition, the patient must be instructed to refrain from eating or drinking for a certain period prior to the procedure. If the anesthesiologist fails to take these important steps, the patient may not be physically ready for surgery or could have a serious, even fatal, allergic reaction to the medication.
  • Intubation and extubation errors: When a patient is under anesthesia, his or her muscles are temporarily paralyzed, including the diaphragm, which can make it difficult to breathe. Intubation is the process of restoring oxygen flow to the airways by inserting a breathing tube, known as an endotracheal tube, down the patient’s windpipe. If the endotracheal tube is improperly placed, it can result in the following complications:
    – Brain damage due to lack of oxygen
    – Nerve damage to the neck of esophagus
    – Arrhythmia
    – Stroke
    – Perforated trachea
    – Paralysis of the vocal cords
    – Injuries to the lips, mouth, or teeth
    Extubation is the process of removing the endotracheal tube from the patient’s windpipe. The patient must be able to breathe on his or her own before the tube can be removed.
  • Poor patient monitoring: In addition to administering the appropriate anesthesia medication, an anesthesiologist is responsible for monitoring the patient’s vital signs during the surgical procedure. It may be necessary to regulate the patient’s consciousness level, blood oxygen content, and vital signs. The anesthesiologist must also make sure that the patient is not left in a position that could result in a pinched nerve or that restricts blood flow to the vital organs.
  • Turning off monitoring equipment: If the monitoring equipment is turned off and the patient is in distress, the equipment will not alert the surgeon, nurse, or anesthesiologist that there is a problem. For example, if the pulse oximeter is turned off, it will not alert the doctors that the patient’s oxygen level in his or her blood is too low.

What Should Patients Do When Injured During Anesthesia?

If a patient is injured or his or her health was compromised while under the care of an anesthesiologist, the patient may file a medical malpractice lawsuit. However, to have a successful claim, the patient must be able to prove that medical malpractice occurred. To do that, the patient must be able to prove the following four elements:

  • Duty of care: The patient must be able to prove that a doctor-patient relationship existed.
  • Breach of the duty of care: The patient must be able to prove that the anesthesiologist did not provide the care that another, similarly trained doctor would have provided under similar circumstances.
  • The breach of care caused injuries: The patient must be able to prove that the anesthesiologist’s error or incompetence caused the injury.
  • The injury led to damages: To sue for malpractice, there must be injuries involved. The following are examples of damages:
    – Physical injuries
    – Mental anguish
    – Lost wages
    – Pain and suffering

In some cases, it may be the hospital or the medical facility that is liable for the patient’s injuries, rather than the anesthesiologist. These facilities can be held liable based on the following:

  • Vicarious liability: If the anesthesiologist is employed by the hospital, the hospital will be held liable for any negligent behavior committed by its employees, including anesthesiologists.
  • Negligent hiring and supervision: If the anesthesiologist is an independent contractor, but the hospital should have known that the anesthesiologist posed a risk, or he or she was not properly supervised, the hospital may be held liable for injuries suffered by the patient.

Baltimore Medical Malpractice Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Advocate for Victims of Anesthesiology Errors

If you or someone you know was injured or your health was compromised while under anesthesia, do not hesitate to contact the Baltimore medical malpractice lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. We will conduct a thorough investigation and determine whether the anesthesiologist responsible for your care was negligent in any way. Our dedicated legal team will walk you through the claims process and seek the maximum financial compensation you deserve. To schedule a free consultation, call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online.

Our offices are conveniently located in BaltimoreColumbiaGlen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, where we represent victims throughout Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.