Case Spotlight: Fire in the Operating Room

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Personal Injury
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I have had a few Personal Injury cases in my career that I expected to be straightforward and simple; that the negligence of the defendant and injuries to my client seemed so clear that, surely, there would be no fight and I would be able to obtain swift justice. That was certainly the case for my client who was injured in an operating room fire. Unfortunately for her, I was wrong, and the doctors and their insurance companies took the case to the eve of trial before finally agreeing to settle and pay fair compensation. This is the case of two careless doctors and the operating room fire.

Fire in the Operating Room Case

The Case

The trouble all began when my client noticed a suspicious looking mole above her right eyebrow and, fearing cancer, her family doctor recommended that it be removed by a general surgeon. The surgeon promised that it would be a simple, forty-five minute outpatient procedure and that my client would be home before lunch. He was wrong and, in reality, she would spend eight days (including Christmas) in the hospital before returning home.

There were two doctors involved with the mole removal surgery; a surgeon and an anesthesiologist. The anesthesiologist put my client to sleep and was monitoring her. He also chose to administer oxygen during the surgery to my client by way of a face mask. At the same time, the surgeon was to remove the mole and close the wound.

After the surgery started, the anesthesiologist who began the procedure took his lunch break and was relieved by one of his partners. Shortly thereafter, the surgeon removed the mole and decided to use a Bovie Cautery device to control some bleeding points on the wound. A Bovie Cautery is a surgical tool that uses an electrical charge to cauterize wounds and stop bleeding. Unfortunately, as the surgeon used the Bovie, the client’s eyebrow started singeing and the Bovie sparked. This source of fire mixed with the 100% oxygen leaking from my client’s face mask and ignited a fire which engulfed her face, chest and shoulder. Although the substitute anesthesiologist quickly turned off the oxygen and the surgeon and nurses put out the fire, my client suffered widespread first and second degree burns, spent eight days in a burn center wrapped up like a mummy and relied on morphine for pain control. After her release from the burn center, she spent about six months in painful recovery from her wounds and suffered from some scarring and extreme sun sensitivity.

The Malpractice Case

To prove our case of medical malpractice, we retained expert doctors to study the fire. These experts concluded that both doctors committed malpractice. The surgeon should not have used the Bovie while oxygen was being delivered by mask and the anesthesiologist should have seen the Bovie and turned off the oxygen. The negligent failure of the two doctors to work together and properly communicate with each other caused the fire and serious injuries. If they had followed proper procedures, the fire would have been avoided.

The Result

Much to my surprise, the doctors and their insurance companies did not immediately offer my client fair compensation for her medical bills, pain and suffering and disfigurement. Instead, each doctor hired its own expert and said that either the fire was a freak accident or that it was the other doctor’s fault. In effect, each doctor tried to push blame to the other. This strategy continued until just a week before trial. At that time, realizing that we had properly prepared for trial and that a jury might be outraged by the fire itself and the defense tactics of calling it a freak accident or blaming each other, the insurance companies finally paid full and fair compensation to my client.

The Lesson

This case taught me an important lesson to prepare every case like a trial is certain – because only if you are ready to win will the insurance company treat you and your client with respect.

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