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Jury to decide surgical error case involving robots

The risks of robotic surgery have become hot topics in recent months in Michigan. This week, jury deliberations were scheduled to begin in Seattle in the first case to be tried involving injuries linked to the da Vinci robotic surgery system. Twenty-six such lawsuits have been filed.

This first lawsuit involves a now deceased man who experienced multiple complications following a robot-assisted prostate procedure in 2008. He died four years after the surgery. The estate is now seeking $8.45 million in damages, blaming the maker of da Vinci systems for inadequately training surgeons on its machines, among other types of negligence.

The company has said the victim's urologist is actually responsible for the injuries. The unassisted da Vinci procedure on this man was the urologist's first. The doctor had a long history of performing the same procedure with traditional methods, according to the lawsuit. During this man's operation, the surgeon did ultimately have to revert to traditional surgery when the robotic procedure was not going well.

When using the da Vinci robots, the doctor sits several feet away from the patient and uses hand controls and foot pedals to direct mechanical arms that are holding surgical tools. The human surgeon watches the procedure on a 3D camera.

According to the lawsuit, Intuitive Surgical Inc., which is behind the da Vinci robots, recommends that surgeons perform only two supervised robotic procedures and attend a one-day training before they use the robots alone.

That recommendation allegedly appears in the company's best practices document, and the person who wrote this recommendation has a background in wine sales and no prior training related to medicine or to medical devices.

The outcome of this case and the other robotic surgery negligence cases remains to be seen. This case illustrates that not only can doctors and hospitals be held accountable for medical malpractice, but medical device manufacturers and distributors can be as well.

Source: Bloomberg, "Intuitive Robotic Surgery Case Goes to Seattle-Area Jury," Patricia Guthrie and Joel Rosenblatt, May 21, 2013

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