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Anesthesia Medical Malpractice

Anesthesia is the use of medication to numb the body during medical procedures. From pulling out a tooth to heart surgery, it is used commonly to help patients get through a procedure pain free. Anesthesiologists are highly skilled doctors who specialize in the administration of the numbing medication. 

Because the risk of complications increases with the anesthesia dosage, anesthesiologists and presiding physicians have a duty to ensure that the patient is safe and to monitor them for complications. If a person suspects that malpractice has occurred and that they have suffered an injury as a result of it, it is important to contact an attorney today to see if compensation can be recovered.  

Types of Anesthesia

There are three main types of anesthesia. Doctors will use one over the other in accordance with the type of procedure or surgery that the patient will be undergoing. 

  • Local anesthesia is used for minor procedures, like pulling out a tooth or on a small wound that needs stitches. It numbs a small part of the body, and the person is awake and alert during the procedure. 
  • Regional anesthesia is used for more serious procedures, such as childbirth, C-sections, and minor surgeries. It is used for larger areas of the body, like the arms, legs, or everything below the waist. A person may be awake during the procedure, but it is also possible that sedation will be administered. 
  • General anesthesia affects the whole body and makes the person unconscious and unable to move. It is used during major surgeries, such as heart surgery, brain surgery, back surgery, and organ transplants. 

Mistakes That Can Occur

Anesthesiologists are heavily involved for the patient’s entire surgery timeline. They start from the days or weeks leading up to surgery, then through, during, and after the surgery. They manage pain control, monitor anesthesia during the procedure, monitor recovery levels including levels of oxygen and consciousness, and many other aspects of anesthesia administration. However, mistakes can be made along the way. Examples include:

  • Medication dosing error, which is probably the most common error 
  • Medication labeling error, which can lead to giving incorrect medication 
  • Omitting medication completely 
  • Ineffective monitoring of the patient during and after the procedure, like not checking blood pressure prior to use 
  • Failing to act promptly when an injury is apparent or should have been apparent
  • Departing from accepted norms and procedures when monitoring, treating, and caring for the patient and engaging in reckless or improper behavior 
  • Poor preparation of the patient for the surgery
  • Equipment problems due to a failure to check prior to beginning surgery

Complications and Injuries

Anesthesia has the potential to create serious health issues if misused or abused. Physical injury is a common cause for anesthesia malpractice lawsuits. Complications that can occur include: 

  • Pneumothorax, where the anesthesia is injected near the lung and the needle accidentally enters the lung. This could cause the lung to collapse and may require the insertion of a chest tube to re-inflate the lung
  • Dental injury
  • Postoperative cognitive dysfunction
  • Malignant hyperthermia 
  • Nerve damage, causing temporary or permanent pain
  • Major soft tissue injury sustained to the lungs during airway instrumentation
  • Eye injury, including postoperative visual loss that can last for more than 30 days 
  • Hypotension (low blood pressure), in severe cases can lead to death
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure), leads to risk of stroke and bleeding
  • Paralysis
  • Death

One study found that one-fifth of all anesthesia malpractice cases dealt with postoperative injuries arising from a failure to address situations, where the team failed to treat a condition that led to significant physical deterioration. Postoperative respiratory depression, postoperative surgical bleeding, and epidural/spinal hematoma were some of the more common injuries noted.

Wrongful Death from Anesthesia

If a patient died from complications arising from anesthesia malpractice, their estate, typically their spouse or children, can sue for wrongful death. They can sue for the amount of conscious pain and suffering that the deceased had to go through from the complications, the financial loss to the household, and the loss of partnership and emotional trauma resulting from the untimely loss of their loved one. These are also known as economic and non-economic damages. The attorney will work with the estate in determining the damages that can be claimed. 

Is It Malpractice?

Not all medical errors give rise to malpractice claims. In determining whether there was malpractice, courts view the error in light of whether it was preventable or unpreventable. A preventable error is one where the doctor had control over and could have prevented if more caution, diligence, or expertise was employed. For example, misusing the anesthesia machine, inadequate ventilation during a procedure, giving an inappropriate dose, or administering the wrong drug would all be classic errors representative of anesthesia malpractice. 

A lawsuit allows the person who was injured to hold those responsible for the harm accountable. Anesthesia malpractice cases work on a contingency basis. This means that a lawyer will not charge fees up front in a personal injury lawsuit. Instead, they will take a percentage of the damages awarded. Each state sets its own limits on the percentage of the overall amount that attorneys can take. 

Malpractice Liability for an Anesthesia Errors

In the event of malpractice, vicarious liability can be imposed on several parties involved in the administration and care of anesthesia. Vicarious liability refers to the employer being responsible for the harm caused by the employee while they were acting in the ordinary duties of their job. In anesthesia cases, the following liabilities may be imposed:

  • The hospital for the negligence of anesthetist, anesthesiologist, and other members of the anesthesiology care team, even if they were independent contractors
  • In rarer occasions and depending on the jurisdiction, the surgeon may be responsible for the negligence of the anesthesiologist or anesthetist during surgery if they controlled the actions of the person administering anesthesia 
  • Similarly, the anesthesiologist may be responsible for the certified registered nurse (anesthetist) if they were present in the operating room when the alleged negligent behavior took place (also rare and dependent on the jurisdiction) 

Proving Negligence

Anesthesia malpractice lawsuits are a form of traditional medical malpractice lawsuits. The elements of proving negligent behavior are: 

  1. An injury happened to the patient
  2. The anesthesiologist had a duty of care to the patient
  3. The anesthesiologist breached that duty 
  4. The breach was a proximate cause of the injury

The most difficult element to prove is the causation element. This is because there may be other possible causes of the injury, including underlying health issues that the patient had, the patient’s role in contributing to their injury, and natural complications arising from the procedure. 


Medical malpractice cases can end in either an out-of-court settlement or a jury verdict. The jury, in turn, can rule for the person claiming injury, in which case they will typically award compensatory damages. Conversely, they can rule for the doctor and the medical facility being used, in which case money will not be awarded to the injured party. The outcome is dependent on many factors, including the strength of the evidence, the skills of the attorneys, and the general sentiment of the jury. 

Because of the uncertainties of trial outcomes, many cases will be settled by out-of-court negotiations by the opposing attorneys and the insurance companies involved. A successful lawsuit can result in damages ranging from thousands of dollars to millions, depending on the extent of injury. Because of the difficulty in establishing the causation element in an anesthesia malpractice lawsuit, attorneys have to spend a more significant amount of time and money investigating the facts of the case and consulting and retaining expert testimony than for other malpractice cases. For this reason, attorneys will normally take the case if they believe it to be financially viable. They can determine the feasibility of your claim by comparing it to similar past cases, and identifying key similarities and differences that may predict the likely outcome. 

Case Law: Medical Malpractice Anesthesia Cases

The following cases illustrate the compensation amounts that injured parties have received in the past for medical malpractice with anesthesia.

  • A newborn male suffered birth-related neurological injuries including brain damage, seizures, and multi-organ failure
  • The OBGYN and anesthesiologist who administered the childbirth were sued
  • It was contended that they failed to observe signs that the mother’s labor was imminent and failed to secure adequate anesthesia coverage, refusing to provide it during the emergency C-section 
  • The parties settled out of court for about $4.6 million, 50 percent to be allocated to future medical expenses and the other 50 percent for other damages
  • A wrongful death action was brought after a patient with a history of heart and respiratory problems went into cardiac arrest moments after being administered anesthesia and undergoing a procedure 
  • The estate sued for negligence in failing to obtain medical history, failure to perform alternative testing without the use of anesthesia, failing to monitor the patient’s heart, and improperly administering the anesthesia
  • The parties settled for $500,000, of which the anesthesiologist was responsible for $375,000, with the doctor in charge of the procedure held accountable for the remainder
  • A 7-year-old patient suffered an allergic reaction to anesthesia in an outpatient facility 
  • The boy suffered malignant hyperthermia, multi-organ failure, cerebral infarction, lower leg paralysis, ankle deformities, and left eye vision impairment
  • The doctor who administered the anesthesia was sued for failing to properly monitor the boy’s body temperature, allowing it to reach 110 degrees before appropriate treatment was rendered
  • The parties reached a settlement in the amount of $2.195 million 

What to Do if You Suspect Malpractice

If you or a loved one has had complications stemming from anesthesia and you suspect malpractice has occurred, it is important to reach out to an attorney. You should not have to pay for the harm that was caused to you by negligent behavior of a physician or medical facility. The best way to begin addressing the problems that may have arisen out of anesthesia complications is to hold those responsible accountable and ensure that they now help you recover by paying you for the harm that they have caused. While money does not fix everything, a lawsuit brings accountability and alleviates some burden on the injured person. For more information on personal injury lawsuits, see our personal injury page.

At Rosenblum Law, we’ve been handling medical malpractice claims for decades. We work with medical experts to help support our clients’ claims, and are experienced negotiators when it comes to going up against insurance companies. Our firm is here to help you make sense of your options and protect your rights as a patient. Contact us today for an initial consultation.


Is waking up or feeling pain during surgery malpractice?

Anesthesia during surgery is not only meant to alleviate pain during the procedure, but also sedate the patient so that they are unconscious during the surgery. In certain cases, it would be possible to sue for malpractice if a person woke up during surgery. They would have to show that they were emotionally traumatized by the event. If a person suffers from PTSD post surgery from having been awake during the procedure, then that has the potential for a strong case against the doctors presiding over the surgery. 

How rare is it to not wake up from anesthesia?

While a complete failure to wake is a rare occurrence, failure to arouse and delayed awakening are among the most common early neurological problems post anesthesia. That being said, higher rates of failing to wake are reported following cardiac surgery, with pre-existing conditions, perioperative hypotension, postoperative organ failure as possible contributing factors.

When can anesthesia errors occur?

One study found that incidents occurred most commonly during the middle of the anesthesia, followed by the induction period, and finally, at the beginning of the procedure. This highlights the importance of investigating all aspects of anesthesia administration in determining where the malpractice occurred and illustrates the extensive investigation that attorneys have to do in assessing whether or not malpractice took place.

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