Who is Responsible for a Robot?

Robots are regularly performing surgical procedures on patients in hospitals across America, and the doctors in control them are not properly trained in how they work.

That frightening premise is what the family of a man who died after an operation is claiming in a lawsuit headed to trail in less than 2 weeks. The lawsuit is one of several in recent years filed against Intuitive Surgical Inc., which manufactures surgical robots used in 1,371 U.S. hospitals, Bloomberg reported.

This case illustrates the quickly changing state of modern medicine. But it also rests upon long-established principles of law that remain relevant – even if lines are increasingly becoming blurred.

The Case

The lawsuit in question was filed in Kitsap County by the family of Fred Taylor. Taylor was injured during a 2008 procedure to remove his prostate. The lawsuit alleges the surgeon who performed the operation using Intuitive’s da Vinci Surgical System had never used the machine without supervision, and was not properly trained to use it.

Taylor suffered kidney failure, brain damage and other severe complications from the surgery and later died of heart failure linked to the procedure, according to the lawsuit.

The case is set for trial April 15.

What Exactly is a Surgical Robot?

The da Vinci Surgical System is Intuitive’s flagship product. With a price tag in the $1.5 million to $2.5 million range, the robot allows complex surgical procedures to be performed by a surgeon operating what Bloomberg describes as a “video-game style console” in the operating room.

From the company’s website:

“Da Vinci is powered by state-of-the-art robotic technology that allows the surgeon’s hand movements to be scaled, filtered and translated into precise movements of the EndoWrist® instruments working inside the patient’s body.”

According to Bloomberg, surgical robots were used in roughly 300,000 procedures in 2012. They are not new: they’ve been in use since the 1990s.

Proponents argue that surgical robots make smaller incisions in the patient, allowing for a faster recovery and shorter hospital stay. They can also perform tasks much more precise than a surgeon could with her or her own hands – provided the surgeon has been properly trained to use the machine.

But it appears that’s not always the case. If Fred Taylor did die as a result of his surgeon being inadequately trained to use the da Vinci system, interesting legal questions arise. Who is responsible for the actions of a non-human when it performs tasks that can have grave consequences?

Product Liability or Medical Malpractice?

Typically, when a patient is injured or killed as a result of a surgical procedure, legal liability lies with the surgeon, the supporting staff and/or the hospital where the surgery was performed, depending on the circumstances. The Perey Law Firm has successfully handled many of these kinds of cases.

One party generally not held accountable, though, is the company that made the scalpel.

That is essentially Intuitive’s argument in defending the Taylor lawsuit. Their attorneys argue that the Taylor family can only sue the medical provider who performed the procedure, not the company that made the surgical robot used.

But Bloomberg reported the judge in the case said product liability laws in Washington place responsibility on medical product manufacturers to properly train and instruct doctors.

What Do You Think?

Who should be to blame in this scenario? Intuitive Surgical Inc.? The surgeon and his employer? Both?

Our law is adaptable to changing times and changing industries. It has happened before and it will happen again. The outcomes of cases like these will shape the way we go forward.

Regardless of the legal nuances, representing innocent people hurt or killed during a medical procedure is something we’re proud to do. Contact the Perey Law Firm today for a free consultation if this has happened to you or someone in your family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *