Liability and Negligence in Cases of Cardiac Arrest During Surgery August 9, 2023.

cardiac arrest during surgery

Having surgery is stressful enough. You go under anesthesia and hope the doctors find whatever is wrong. You know that when you wake up, there will be pain and a lengthy recovery. The only thing worse would be learning afterward that something went wrong during surgery. Or learning that your loved one died on the operating table because of something known as intraoperative cardiac arrest or cardiac arrest during surgery.

How To Identify Negligence in Cardiac Arrest Incidents During Surgery

Intraoperative cardiac arrest, or anesthesia-related cardiac arrest, is not well understood in the medical field. Recent systematic review of multiple retrospective studies have not been conclusive about mortality and survival. It is difficult to separate mortality related to anesthesia from mortality due to other causes, such as other post-surgery complications, preexisting cardiac conditions, or unrelated trauma.

Some signs of negligence or malpractice include:

  • Failing to recognize pre-surgery risk factors
  • Delay in recognizing cardiac distress
  • Delay in beginning CPR or resuscitation efforts
  • Improper post-surgery care

According to a recent study, cardiac incidents are higher for victims of traumatic injuries, such as gunshot or car accident victims, and the overall mortality rate is about 65-70%. Arrest during anesthesia can result in pulmonary embolism, ventricular fibrillation, blood clots, and paralysis.

Legal Standards for Establishing Liability in Surgical Cardiac Arrest Cases

Establishing liability for any medical malpractice case requires showing that the doctor, the surgical team, or the hospital breached their duty of care to the patient. To prove a malpractice case, the plaintiff must show:

  • Duty: The doctor has a duty to act as a medical professional toward the patient and provide the highest standard of care. In a surgical case, the surgical team under the surgeon’s direction must also behave as professionals and carry out their tasks. The hospital is expected to hire personnel suitable for the positions and ensure they are fit for duty during the surgery.
  • Breach: Malpractice and negligence involve a breach of duty. Liability will fall on whichever of the parties was responsible for the breach. For instance, the surgeon may have performed flawlessly but failed to notice the anesthesiologist was not paying attention to the patient’s blood pressure. In this case, both parties breached their duty.
  • Causation: The breach itself must have been the cause of the injury. The surgical team may not be the cause of the harm. For instance, if the admitting desk failed to note that the patient had an allergy to a certain drug and this information was not entered on the patient’s chart, then the anesthesiologist would not be at fault for administering the drug. However, the hospital would still be liable for the injury.
  • Injury: The patient must have suffered an injury. Having cardiac arrest during surgery is an injury on its own. Learning that something “might” have gone wrong is not sufficient in a negligence case. However, in a medical malpractice case, potential harm may result in liability to the hospital.

Common Causes of Cardiac Arrest During Surgery and Their Legal Implications

Researchers are still establishing what causes cardiac arrest during surgery. It was once thought that lack of oxygen and excessive use of anesthesia might be a cause. Now doctors realize there are other causes.

  • Physical trauma: As noted, patients suffering from physical trauma are more likely to experience heart attacks during surgery than those with benign conditions. It is unclear whether this is due to blood loss or other causes.
  • Emergency surgery: Emergency surgery and the attendant risk factors, including emergency room errors, put patients at higher risk of cardiac arrest.
  • Preexisting cardiac conditions: These include bradycardia, atrial fibrillation, and pulmonary disease.

The complications of cardiac arrest without surgery may be serious, but they are manageable with proper care. The complications of cardiac arrest during surgery can be catastrophic. Having a heart attack during surgery means that two complex events — the surgical procedure and CPR — must occur at the same time and must be carried out flawlessly if the patient is to survive.

How To Prove Medical Negligence in Surgical Cardiac Arrest Lawsuits

Medical negligence vs malpractice can be a difficult line to draw. Medical malpractice usually involves medical professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and others with a high degree of education and experience.

Medical negligence often involves those with a lower level of training, education, or experience, who are not as liable for the harm done to surgical patients. Their actions or failure to act may result in the injury.

For instance, an admitting nurse who fails to note a drug allergy, a maintenance worker who does not replace a nearly empty oxygen tank, or a hospital administrator who hires a surgeon with a substance abuse problem may all be liable for negligence if these result in cardiac arrest situations.

Compensation and Damages in Cases of Cardiac Arrest During Surgery

The survival rate for patients who suffer from surgical cardiac arrest is 35-50%. If the resuscitation efforts were successful, the patient may spend a few days in the intensive care unit or cardiac unit recovering. If not, the patient may have weeks or months of painful rehabilitation ahead.

In medical malpractice cases, victims may recover:

  • Economic damages, including medical bills, lost income, future medical costs, and home care
  • Non-economic damages, including pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, and loss of consortium for surviving family
  • Punitive damages if the malpractice was unusually egregious or due to a gross violation of medical negligence law

Survivors also can receive compensation in personal injury lawsuits. In one case, a woman was awarded $4 million for a heart attack misdiagnosis that resulted in her husband's death.

Punitive damages are rare, but a medical negligence attorney can give you advice about the details in your case.

Seek Legal Representation for Surgical Cardiac Arrest Cases

If you or a loved one have suffered an anesthesia-related cardiac arrest and are living with the consequences, you need a medical negligence lawyer who can help you get the compensation you deserve. At Mellino Law Firm, we want to see our clients recover from their injuries and get back to enjoying life. Contact us at (440) 333-3800 or through our online form.