Malpractice Lawsuit Over Surgical Fire Results in $18M Damage Award

A Washington woman whose lungs were set fire during surgery was awarded $18 million by a Seattle jury last week.  

As a result of a surgical fire that occurred when a doctor allegedly used pure oxygen in combination with a laser during surgery, Becky S. Anderson’s airway, lungs and trachea suffered severe burns and she was left with severe injuries that require the use of a ventilator and a shortened life expectancy.

The medical malpractice lawsuit was filed against the surgeon, Donald Paugh, the anesthesiologist, Linda Schatz, and their employers, Wenatchee Valley Medical Center and Wenatchee Anesthesia Associates, respectively. Anderson also sued Medtronic Inc., alleging that the Laser-Shield II endotracheal tube made by the company was defectively designed and caused the surgical fire.

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Last Thursday a Seattle jury ruled in favor of Anderson, finding that the doctors and their employers were liable for the surgical malpractice. However, the jury returned a defense verdict for Medtronic in the product liability portion of the claim, finding that the manufacturer is not responsible for any portion of the $18 million in damages awarded.

According to the complaint, Anderson was undergoing elective laryngeal laser surgery when her doctors used pure oxygen instead of room air during the surgery. When the oxygen made contact with the laser it ignited, setting the Maser-Shield II on fire and severely injuring her respiratory system.

Anderson claimed at trial that the Medtronic Laser-Shield II was defective and negligently designed, because it lacked a dual cuff that could have prevented both the fire and her injuries. The doctors also claimed that the Medtronic endotracheal tube was the source of the problem. However, the jury disagreed, finding the doctors negligent and the cause of the operating room fire.

Although such incidents are rare, there are about 550 to 650 surgery fires every year, according to data gathered by the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Reporting System in 2007.

In 2011, the FDA launched a new initiative designed to prevent operating room fires by increasing awareness about the causes of surgical fires and practices that can reduce the risk of such events.

Approximately one or two surgical fire deaths occur every year, but many more patients suffer severe and disfiguring burns as a result of the fires that are often started by a combination of electrosurgical tools, oxygen, and flammable hospital drapes. In many cases medical malpractice lawsuits for surgery fires are filed, alleging that the incident could have been prevented if the proper standards of medical care were followed.

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