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What Anesthesia Complications Are Indicative of Medical Malpractice?

Written by Berkowitz

Medical malpractice report documents and the stethoscope.

A number of different anesthesia complications might provide you with a clue that you or your loved one has become a victim of medical malpractice, ranging from tooth damage, to an allergic reaction to anesthesia, to permanent brain damage or even death.

These complications may occur during the operation, immediately afterwards, or even some time later. Not all anesthesia complications result from medical malpractice, however, and the trick in building a credible medical malpractice claim is to trace the complication to a specific failure on the part of your healthcare provider – typically the anesthesiologist, but not always.

Possible Anesthesia Complications

Possible anesthesia complications include:

  • post-op pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • mental confusion
  • tooth damage
  • damage to the larynx
  • allergic reaction to the anesthesia
  • breathing difficulties
  • pneumonia
  • brain damage
  • stroke
  • nerve injuries
  • blood clots
  • heart attacks
  • regaining consciousness during surgery; and

Some of these complications are far more common than others. Regaining consciousness during an operation, for example, is particularly uncommon. Nausea, vomiting, and post-op pain, by contrast, are not the least bit unusual, although they are far from universal.

Types of Anesthesia

In general, anesthesia can be divided into three types: local, regional, and general. Local anesthesia numbs a specific part of the body; regional anesthesia numbs an entire region of the body, even though you remain conscious (an epidural during childbirth, for example); and a general anesthetic renders you unconscious. General anesthesia is by far the most dangerous of the three, although even general anesthesia is relatively safe compared to, say, smoking cigarettes or even driving a car.

Sobering Statistics

According to data derived from malpractice insurance claims, nearly two-thirds of medical malpractice claims related to anesthesia errors arise from the administration of anesthesia during surgery, typically due to the use of general anesthesia. Other claims arise from, for example, pain management treatment. Most anesthesia-related medical malpractice claims arise from serious consequences such as:

  • death (about 25 percent);
  • nerve injury (more than 20 percent);
  • permanent brain damage (nearly 10 percent); and
  • tooth damage.

Anesthesia Errors

The following are some of the most common anesthesia errors:

  • Administering too much anesthesia (possibly resulting in confusion, coma, and death);
  • Administering too little anesthesia (possibly resulting in the patient waking up during surgery as well as other complications);
  • Administering the wrong kind of anesthesia, causing an allergic reaction;
  • Allowing local anesthesia to seep into the bloodstream;
  • Communication failures, especially during surgery, that can result in a wide variety of errors including the misadministration of anesthesia;
  • Keeping the patient under anesthesia for too long of a time;
  • Placing oxygen machines near hot surgical devices;
  • Failing to properly instruct the patient on how to prepare for surgery (refraining from eating or drinking for a certain number of hours before surgery, for example);
  • Improper injection of anesthesia into spinal nerves (in regional anesthesia), resulting in nerve damage;
  • Improperly executing nerve blocks used in regional anesthesia, resulting in a heart attack or high blood pressure;
  • Failure to properly monitor the patient, especially the delivery of oxygen, leading to a variety of dangers, including insufficient oxygen to the brain;
  • Failing to recognize a developing complication;
  • Turning off the alarm on certain medical equipment, such as the pulse oximeter;
  • Failing to change the patient’s position periodically, thereby causing injury to the patient’s optic nerve; and
  • Failing to appropriately react to adverse reaction to anesthesia by the patient (an allergic reaction, for example);

Many, many more potential errors are possible.

How Do You Win a Medical Malpractice Case?

Not every medical error can support a medical malpractice claim. Doctors are expected to be competent, not perfect – in fact, if it were any other way, just about every doctor would be held liable for medical malpractice several times during his career. A medical mistake can support a malpractice claim when it falls below the minimum standard of competence required of any doctor. This is generally determined by a medical expert such as another doctor.

To build a medical malpractice claim, a certain amount of investigative work must be done. Your lawyer must be able to trace your injury to a specific error —  nerve damage due to clumsy injection of anesthesia into spinal nerves, for example – and establish a causal relationship between the harm you suffered and the mistake the doctor made.

Next, it will be important to establish that the doctor’s error was serious enough to constitute negligence, at which point it will probably become necessary to consult a medical expert. Some medical experts specialize in testifying in medical malpractice lawsuits, although they are bound by their professional obligations to provide objective testimony rather than to automatically support the party that is paying them to testify.

Resolving Your Case

Building a malpractice case that will stand up in court will likely require sworn testimony from an expert witness, documentary evidence such as the results of an independent medical exam conducted by another doctor, and perhaps the anesthesiologist’s own surgery notes. Before taking the case to court, however, your lawyer will probably attempt to open private settlement negotiations with the defendant and his malpractice insurance company.

Only if settlement negotiations fail will the case go to court. Most medical malpractice claims are settled out of court, although some doctors and insurance companies will choose to “fight it out to the bitter end.” Even filing a lawsuit does not necessarily mean you will have to go to court, however – a trial will have to be scheduled, and most claims are settled before trial.

Did the Anesthesiologist’s Actions Add Up to Medical Negligence?

Some of the considerations by which your anesthesiologist will be judged include:

  • Would another anesthesiologist have exercised a similar degree of care to prevent the harm that you suffered?
  • How foreseeable was the harm that you suffered under the circumstances? Would the average anesthesiologist been able to foresee it?
  • Were there any alternative actions that could have been taken to prevent the harm you suffered (using regional anesthesia instead of general anesthesia, for example)?
  • Was the risk of using an alternative greater than the risk of taking the actions that were actually taken by the anesthesiologist?

Ultimately, the defendant will be judged against the consensus standard of care of a similarly situated anesthesiologist under the same circumstances. Although your lawyer can contact an expert medical witness who may be willing to testify in your favor, the defense might call its own expert witness to rebut the testimony of your expert witness. At that point, it will be up to the court to decide who to believe.

Who Should You File Your Claim Against?

It is possible to file a claim against more than one defendant at the same time, and it is not always obvious who you should file your claim against. The following are some possibilities:

  • The anesthesiologist, if the harm you suffered was caused by the anesthesiologist’s error;
  • Both the hospital and the anesthesiologist, if the anesthesiologist was an employee of the hospital (unfortunately, most anesthesiologists are considered by the courts to be independent contractors of the hospitals they work for, not employees, which means that the hospital is not automatically liable for the anesthesiologist’s negligence);
  • The hospital, if an employee of the hospital caused the harm you suffered (if hospital maintenance staff failed to properly maintain anesthesia equipment used during your surgery, for example);
  • The manufacturer of the medical equipment, if an inherent defect in the equipment itself caused your injury (this would be considered a product liability claim rather than a medical malpractice claim).

Illustrative Examples

  1. Jane suffered brain damage due to insufficient oxygen while she was under general anesthesia. An investigation reveals that she was pregnant at the time of the surgery, that she knew of her own pregnancy, and that the medical team responsible for her surgery failed to discover her pregnancy because of a negligently administered medical history examination.


Medical experts agreed, however, that her brain damage was caused by faulty medical equipment, not by her pregnancy. Jane’s claim against the anesthesiologist will fail, but she might have a claim against the hospital (for negligent equipment maintenance) or the medical equipment manufacturer (for manufacturing a defective product).


  1. Bill is an alcoholic who underwent surgery for reasons unrelated to his alcoholism. The hospital’s medical history examination negligently failed to elicit the fact of Bill’s alcoholism. Bill’s alcoholism caused him to develop a cross-tolerance to the anesthesia used during the operation, which in turn caused him to wake up during surgery and thereby suffer intense pain. Bill can demand damages for pain and suffering even though the operation was successful.
  2. Travis suffers an allergic reaction to anesthesia during surgery, leaving him with long-term brain damage. Travis sues both the anesthesiologist and the hospital. Medical testimony establishes that the anesthesiologist negligently administered the wrong type of anesthesia given Travis’ medical history.The hospital maintains that, since the anesthesiologist was an independent contractor, it is not responsible for his error. The judge agrees and dismisses the hospital from the case. The case against the anesthesiologist proceeds, however. Travis ultimately settles the case with the anesthesiologist’s medical malpractice insurance company for $678,000.

To Put It All into Perspective…

Imagine what it must have been like 200 years ago, if you desperately needed surgery but general anesthesia hadn’t been invented yet. Sometimes, we forget how lucky we are, simply to have been born recently enough to take advantage of scientific advances that our ancestors simply did not enjoy. Nevertheless, the administration of anesthesia is inherently dangerous, and health care providers can rightly be held to account for administering it negligently.

You don’t need to concern yourself that you can’t afford to hire a lawyer. At Berkowitz Hanna, it is the strength of your claim that matters, not the size of your bank account. Accordingly, you will owe us nothing unless we win your case and the defendant actually pays. When this happens, our fee will be taken out as a percentage of the amount you win.

Contact Berkowitz Hanna Immediately If You Think You Might Have a Claim

With our decades of combined experience in handling medical malpractice cases, we can help you evaluate your claim and estimate its value. Call Berkowitz Hanna today or contact us online for a free initial consultation. We serve clients throughout Connecticut from our offices in Stamford, Bridgeport, Danbury, and Shelton.