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Examples of Anesthesia Malpractice

Updated May 9, 2023 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Anesthesia is a type of medication that prevents patients from feeling pain during surgery or other medical procedures. It is usually administered by an anesthesiologist and can come in several variations, from localized numbing to induced unconsciousness.

Unfortunately, there is always a level of risk associated with anesthesia. Complications caused by anesthesia errors can take several forms, from minor side effects such as nausea, vomiting, or post-operative pain to serious long-term injuries or even death. When those complications are caused by the negligence of an anesthesiologist or other medical professional, they could be considered malpractice.

Types of Anesthesia

There are three types of anesthesia:

  • Local anesthesia: Numbs a specific area (tooth, etc.)
  • Regional anesthesia: Numbs a larger section of the body (spine, epidural, etc.)
  • General anesthesia: Induces unconsciousness

The kind of anesthesia patients require depends on the nature of the medical procedure they are undergoing.

Anesthesia Malpractice Examples

The following examples of medical malpractice cases involving anesthesia can occur both before and during a surgical procedure.

Pre-Operation Errors

Before an operation, the anesthesiologist must both communicate with patients and perform a thorough review of their medical records and history.

Patient often have to refrain from eating or drinking for a specified time before their procedure. However, if a medical professional fails to properly communicate pre-operation instructions, patients may not fast appropriately or be physically prepared for surgery, increasing their risk.

Reviewing the medical history of patients is a crucial pre-operation step. If anesthesiologists fail to review all medical records, they may administer drugs that patients are allergic to or that cause harmful interactions with other medications. An allergic or negative reaction to anesthesia can cause serious injury or death.

Intubation and Extubation Errors

During general anesthesia, the muscles in the bodies of patients are typically paralyzed—including the diaphragm, making it difficult to breath. To restore oxygen flow to their compromised airways, anesthesiologists will insert a breathing (endotracheal) tube down their windpipe (trachea). This process is called intubation.

An improperly placed endotracheal tube can lead to serious complications:

  • Anoxic or hypoxic brain damage due to lack of oxygen
  • Nerve damage in the neck or esophagus
  • Dangerously quick heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Stroke
  • Perforated trachea
  • Injuries to the lips, mouth, or teeth
  • Paralysis of the vocal cords

Similarly, extubation is when the breathing tube is removed from the patient’s windpipe. It is important that patients are able to breathe effectively on their own before they are extubated. Patients thrashing around or acting aggressive during this procedure could be a sign of airway difficulties.

Dosage Errors

An anesthesiologist has a responsibility to administer the correct dosage of anesthesia to a patient. Too little can lead to the patient waking up during surgery, while too much can result in a coma or organ damage.


Aspiration occurs when patients cannot swallow—such as when they are under general anesthesia—and vomit and food or liquid into their trachea and lungs. In other words, patients undergoing anesthesia lose consciousness and, with it, their esophagus loses its reflexes.

This complication can lead to aspiration pneumonia, a serious lung injury, and make it extremely difficult for a patient to get needed oxygen.

Inadequate Patient Monitoring

Anesthesiologist are not only responsible for administering anesthesia; they are also required to adequately monitor patients during surgery. They may have to regulate the consciousness level, blood oxygen content, and vital signs of patients.

Additionally, doctors must ensure that patients are moved regularly to prevent nerve damage. Patients left in a position that pinches a nerve or restricts blood flow could have serious complications.

Turning Off Monitoring Equipment

Monitoring equipment is a vital part of a surgical procedure, alerting surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and other staff to patient distress and injury. For example, a pulse oximeter measures the oxygen level of a patient’s blood.

These machines have an alarm function. However, if someone turns off the equipment or sound, the medical professionals in the surgical room may miss alerts signaling low vital signs.

Accidentally or intentionally turning off monitoring equipment can be considered an act of medical negligence.

Anesthesia Awareness

Anesthesia awareness is the stuff of horror movies—a person regaining consciousness during an operation—but it can occur in real life, too.

When anesthesiologists administer too little anesthesia or give patients medication too late, there is a risk that they will wake up while on the surgical table. If this worst-case-scenario happens, patients could experience extreme pain, terror, the inability to breathe or move, feel the surgery itself, or be unable to communicate.

Anesthesia awareness can result in a number of emotional disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and insomnia.

How to Prove Anesthesia Malpractice

All medical malpractice anesthesia cases require plaintiffs to prove these four essential elements:

  • Duty: An established relationship between the anesthesiologist and patient
  • Breach: A breach of that duty of care
  • Injury: An injury or harm that resulted in damages
  • Causation: Injury or harm was directly caused by the breach of care

An experienced medical malpractice attorney can determine if negligence was at play and help construct a strong anesthesia malpractice case.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of an anesthesia error, you are urged to contact the attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. An experienced Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyer at WKW can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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