Can you sue a surgeon for leaving a surgical sponge inside you? The answer is yes, absolutely. Surgeons leaving something behind in a patient is negligent behavior that can cause severe pain and disability, and often requires more surgeries, months of rehabilitation, increased medical expenses and other damages.
In severe cases, objects left inside after surgery can be fatal.
Surgical clips left in the body, needles left behind in patients, surgical sponges not removed, gauze left in the patient, scalpels left inside, all of these may be considered medical malpractice.
The problem is, it can take years to discover these foreign objects. Are there time limits on filing a lawsuit against your surgeon?
VA Surgeon Leaves Scalpel Behind in Army Vet
A recent (and shocking) case can help us clear up this statute of limitations question.
In the fall of 2013, Glenford Turner, a healthy, 57-year-old veteran who served 20-plus years in the Army, went in for prostate surgery at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, West Haven.
Mr. Turner experienced minor pelvic pain after his robot-assisted prostate surgery, but nothing serious. Nearly four years later, Mr. Turner went in for an MRI to examine a dizziness spell. Lying on the table, he suddenly experienced piercing abdominal pain.
Technicians did a CT scan of his abdomen and saw a clear image of a 5-inch scalpel handle lying in Mr. Turner’s pelvic region.
Three weeks later, Mr. Turner went in to have the surgical instrument removed. On January 11, 2018, he filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the VA.
What Are Symptoms of Surgical Tools Left Behind?
Common symptoms of a foreign object left in the body after surgery may include abdominal pain and cramping, abdominal mass, constipation, rectal bleeding, diarrhea, fever, and weight loss.
However, many patients don’t experience major symptoms until years later. Mr. Turner did not realize his surgeon made a mistake until nearly four years later, experiencing only minor, continuous, abdominal pain post-op.
Some patients may never discover that a foreign object has been left behind after surgery unless they have an X-ray, CT scan or MRI.
Studies suggest that the time between surgery and detection of a surgical tool left behind ranges from seven days to 21 years, with the average time between a surgery and the removal of a surgical gauze left behind being five years.
Are There Time Limits On Suing My Surgeon?
State laws vary on this, but most state law medical malpractice claims have a two- to a three-year statute of repose. In Mr. Turner’s jurisdiction, Connecticut state law has a three-year statute of repose for medical malpractice claims.
But most courts, including the Connecticut Supreme Court, recognize that these time limits may need to be extended, especially in cases of foreign surgical objects being left behind, since the effects of the negligent act are constant and ongoing.
Surgeons Leave Tools in 1,500 Patients Each Year
Leaving surgical tools behind in patients happens more often than we would think. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that it happens to around 1,500 patients each year. One analysis suggests it could be happening around 4,500 to 6,000 times per year, since many cases go undiscovered, and therefore, unreported.
The most common things left behind are sponges and gauze (70%), with the highest risk of having a surgical tool inside you being after emergency surgery, a gynecologic surgery or abdominal procedure.
Perhaps the most disturbing takeaway from Mr. Turner’s case is that it occurred at a VA hospital. Our nation’s veterans deserve nothing less than high-quality medical care. Leaving a dangerous item behind after surgery is completely unacceptable. Veteran hospital officials must make changes to ensure their patients receive the same quality care that they themselves would hope to receive.
Our law firm represents veterans exclusively. If you have questions about veterans’ medical malpractice claim, we want to hear from you. There is no charge for an initial consult. 888.878.9350 or email.