When a known complication happens, it doesn't mean there wasn't also medical negligence

In health care, the term known complication describes an adverse event that’s known to have happened before in conjunction with a treatment or procedure.

Some healthcare providers are aware of known complications from adverse outcomes in the healthcare that they personally provided. In other instances, awareness of known complications comes from medical, nursing, and scientific literature.

Many healthcare defendants try to use known complications as a sword and a shield. They argue that because an adverse outcome is a known complication that it’s unavoidable.

The truth is that everyone should be thinking about known complications before the treatment or surgery begins. Indeed, a discussion of known complications should occur between the physician and patient as part of the informed consent process. A patient is only able to give informed consent after being briefed by the treating physician on the risks and known complications of proceeding with the proposed treatment or procedure.

One of the principal advantages of disseminating information about known complications is that the standard of care requires surgeons, physicians, and other healthcare providers to take reasonable precautions to guard against them.

Instead, though, many hospitals, physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare providers latch onto known complications as an excuse for medical errors and bad outcomes. We’ve had many medical malpractice clients at Painter Law Firm describe conversations with healthcare providers who claimed that a known complication was simply unavoidable even with the best possible care. Invariably, we share with our clients that negligence is never a known risk for complication of surgery or health care.

That’s not always the case, however. To be clear, just because there are known complications to a treatment or procedure doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for the known complication to be caused by negligence. In other words, the implication that known complications are automatically unpreventable is false.

One thing is pretty certain, though: Medical malpractice plaintiffs can count on hearing the excuse of known complications as a defense to substandard healthcare. Check out this recent testimony from a surgeon who was hired as an expert witness by a medical malpractice defendant:

QUESTION: Doctor, tell us why it's not below the standard of care for a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon to injure the iliac artery and vein when performing a lumbar microdiscectomy.

ANSWER: It's not below the standard of care to injure any structure during any surgery unintentionally. I think it would be below the standard of care to do it intentionally, but to injure a structure like I have during surgeries, vessels, dura, nerves is not below the standard of care.

The defendant’s so-called expert witness took the radical position that it was impossible for a surgeon to violate the standard of care by cutting or damaging an unintended anatomical structure absent criminal conduct (unlike negligence claims, criminal conduct requires intent). How absurd!

In other high-stakes vocations in professions, standards of care have developed to minimize known complications or risks.

In the Army or Air Force, there is a known complication or risk of parachute failure. That’s why soldiers enlisted personnel are constantly trained and retrained in basic tasks of parachute packing and safety.

Airlines are aware of the extreme degree of risk to passengers and employees if there’s an equipment failure. That’s why they have policies and procedures in place requiring pilots to inspect airplane parts and equipment before takeoff.

Borrowing an analogy from yet another vocation, there’s an old carpenter’s rule that says, “Measure twice, cut once.” The same is true in the operating room! Surgeons shouldn’t cut, clip, or ligate any structure until they’ve positively identified what it is. This includes nerves, blood vessels, and other structures such as the common bile product.

When a surgeon or other healthcare provider fails to take proper preventative precautions and techniques to avoid or minimize the risk of known complications, it’s medical malpractice.

So, too, is failing to promptly recognize and treat a known complication. This is true whether the known complication itself was caused by negligence or not.

If you’ve been seriously injured because of poor surgical, medical, or hospital care in Texas, then contact a top-related, experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for a free evaluation of your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.