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How To Prove Anesthesia Errors in a Medical Malpractice Claim

October 27, 2023Articles

As patients, we are at our most vulnerable on the operating table, when anesthesia places us into deep unconsciousness. In this unguarded position we’re completely incapable of participating in our own medical care, but instead place all of our trust into the hands of the doctors tasked with our care. Though the majority of surgical procedures proceed smoothly without a negative event, an error with the very medication that keeps us in this vulnerable sleep state can cause great harm or even death. We’d like to think that frightening mistakes like these cannot occur, thanks to safety procedures and protocols, but a study conducted between 2013 and 2018 revealed 586 claims for damages in anesthesia error cases. In fact, studies show that while the frequency of medical mistakes in other clinical specialties has declined in the last 14 years, the rate of anesthesia errors has remained the same despite clinical practice guidelines designed by the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation.

If you or a close family member suffered an injury from an anesthesia error, you may have serious questions about how to prove your case in a medical malpractice claim.

What Is Anesthesia?

Today’s high level of care in life-saving modern medicine wouldn’t be possible without anesthesia—first used in its earliest form in 1846 at a Boston hospital. Anesthetics are medications used to prevent pain during surgeries and other medical procedures by numbing a specific body part, blocking sensation from an entire region of the body, or by inducing a deep sleep state. The medical industry categorizes anesthesia into three types:

  • Local anesthetics: commonly used to numb individual body parts for minor procedures
  • Regional anesthetics: commonly used to block pain from portions of the body
  • General anesthetics: used to completely numb the body and place the patient into unconsciousness and immobility

Though anesthesia is a life-saving medication that makes complex surgical procedures possible, it also poses significant risks, especially general anesthesia.

Injuries Resulting From Anesthesia Errors

An anesthesia error can cause harm to the patient ranging from mild and temporary to catastrophic or deadly. Common injuries in anesthesia mistake cases include the following:


  • Throat and teeth injuries (from intubation)
  • Nerve injuries
  • Post-operative pain
  • Confusion or delirium after awakening
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Blood clots
  • Awakening during surgery or remaining immobile while experiencing pain and awareness during the surgery
  • Brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Death

An anesthesia error can be devastating to the patient and may have negative impacts on the patient’s family and finances.

Common Medical Mistakes With Anesthesia

An anesthesia error can have grave or even deadly consequences. Common errors with anesthesia include the following:

  • Administering too much anesthesia
  • Administering too little anesthesia
  • Failure to properly monitor an anesthetized patient
  • Failing to recognize and promptly address complications or mistakes
  • Mistakes in oxygen delivery or intubation during anesthesia
  • Delayed administration of anesthesia
  • Failure to review the patient’s medical history prior to administering anesthesia
  • Failure to obtain informed consent
  • Failing to provide the patient with the proper instructions

Any of the above errors is an egregious medical mistake, leaving the anesthesiologist, doctor, surgical facility, hospital, or other provider liable for damages in a medical malpractice claim. “Damages” in an injury claim or lawsuit is the court’s way of describing the economic and non-economic consequences of an injury caused by negligence.

Providing Proof of Anesthesia Error in a Medical Malpractice Claim

All civil claims for damages place the burden of proving liability on the victim. In a medical malpractice claim, the injury victim or their surviving loved ones must first prove that an injury occurred and then show evidence of negligence and liability on the part of the provider at fault for the injury. Liability could also lie with the facility itself if the anesthesiologist or other provider is an employee rather than an independent contractor.

Proving an anesthesia error can be complicated since it involves medical, technical, and legal knowledge. Typically, a skilled New Haven medical malpractice attorney does the following:

  • Consults with medical experts with access to the injury victim’s hospital records and medical records from before, during, and after the procedure
  • Obtains eyewitness testimony from other medical staff members and care providers who were present during the procedure
  • Requests an examination of the anesthesia equipment by an independent third-party

Once the evidence thoroughly supports the fact that an anesthesia mistake caused the victim’s symptoms or condition, the next step is proving that a provider’s negligence caused the mistake and that they meet the conditions for legal liability in a medical malpractice claim.

Establishing Liability to Prove an Anesthesia Error Claim

Doctors have a special duty to their patients to treat them at the standard of care that’s accepted by the medical community. Proving liability in a malpractice claim requires demonstrating the following facts through documented evidence in the case:

  • That a doctor/patient relationship was in place at the time of the injury
  • That the doctor or provider owed a duty of care to treat the patient at the industry-accepted level of care or the way another reasonable doctor would have treated the patient in the same circumstances
  • That the provider breached this special duty of care by acting negligently
  • That their negligent breach of duty directly caused the anesthesia injury
  • That the injury victim suffered both economic damages and non-economic damages like pain and suffering

Once a claim meets the above burden of proof, a skilled malpractice attorney can make a compelling case for damages. Compensation for damages comes from the provider’s medical malpractice insurance.

Damages in a Medical Malpractice Claim Like an Anesthesia Error

The impacts of an anesthesia error can be profound, with life-altering impacts. If the injury causes death, the case becomes a wrongful death case. Most anesthesia error malpractice cases make claims for compensation for damages including the following:

  • Medical costs and future medical care expenses associated with the injury
  • Lost income and reimbursement for future income loss until the injury victim reaches maximum recovery
  • Diminished earning capacity due to a disabling injury
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of enjoyment of life compensation

Serious injuries quickly become costly, especially if they require many procedures, ongoing care plans, and loss of income. Some anesthesia errors cause disability and cognitive impairment. A successful claim for compensation cannot erase the injury but it relieves financial hardship caused by the injury and provides a sense of justice.