A Seattle resident has received $30 million in damages following a surgical incident which left her unable to speak or breathe without the assistance of machines. During a procedure to remove polyps found on her vocal cords, an endotracheal tube caught fire inside of her throat causing irreparable damage to her vocal chords and trachea. (For more discussion on operating room fires view page here)
The victim, Becky Anderson, named multiple parties in the lawsuit which included the hospital where she underwent surgery, two doctors and the manufacturer of the device which caught fire during the procedure. Her case is a precautionary tale about how easily things can go wrong during what may be considered a routine medical procedure.
Doctors and Medical Facility Found Liable
Becky Anderson filed a lawsuit against her ear, nose and throat specialist and the anesthesiologist responsible for sedating her during the procedure which left her with injuries so severe that she was hospitalized for three months. She brought lawsuits against Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, Wenatchee Anesthesia Associates, Central Washington Hospital, Medtronic and Doctors Donald Paugh and Linda Schatz for each of their assumed contributions to her injuries. Of those sued, Medtronic was the only party found not liable for Anderson’s injuries, despite her claim that the tube used should have included a double cuff to prevent oxygen from igniting during the procedure.
The cause of the accident was the ignition of oxygen when Doctor Paugh clipped the tube clipped the endotracheal tube with a surgical laser and ignited the oxygen flowing through it. It was determined that the oxygen would not have ignited had Schatz properly monitored the amount of oxygen Anderson was receiving during the procedure and if the concentration of oxygen were lower. Rather than using a mixture of oxygen and room air, pure oxygen was used, which is far more volatile and combustible. Both doctors were found to be liable for medical negligence and ordered to provide compensation for injuries that markedly changed Becky Anderson’s quality of life.
Becky Anderson is currently unable to speak or breathe without the assistance of machines and the cost of ongoing care for the permanent injuries she sustained is substantial. In addition, Anderson lost the ability to participate in everyday activities she enjoys and her injuries have been the source of extreme emotional trauma for her and her family.
Distribution of Liability
The hospital where Anderson underwent her procedure chose to forgo a trial and agreed to a $12 million settlement while the lawsuits against each of the doctors went to trial. After six weeks of deliberation, Anderson was awarded an additional $9.45 million in damages from Doctor Schatz and $7.65 million from Doctor Paugh. While medical facilities may not be directly responsible for actions taken by personnel, employers are able to be found liable for negligence and malpractice through vicarious liability— meaning that an employer can be found at fault for an injury caused by an employee even if the employer itself did not commit an act of negligence.
Medical device manufacturers may also be found liable if it can be proven that the cause of an injury was the result of a defective or poorly designed product or piece of equipment. Anderson believed that the incident could have been prevented entirely if the tube used had included a double cuff but she lacked substantial evidence that Medtronic’s endotracheal tube failed to perform its intended purpose and it was determined that the fire was the direct result of malpractice rather than a product defect. Instead, liability was placed directly on the doctors performing the procedure and their employers, by extension.