Surgical fires occur with some frequency in Ohio hospitals and surgery centers.  Surgical fires are common enough that the Joint Commission, an independent, nonprofit organization that sets safety standards and accredits hospitals, published a Sentinel Alert in 2003 titled “Preventing Surgical Fires.”  Despite that, in 2012, the FDA published another warning by the same title.  Surgeons use electrocautery to control bleeding during operations.  Lasers are also used in a variety of procedures.  Electrocautery and lasers can provide an ignition source for fires. Nearby oxygen and alcohol can ignite in a flash and burn everything in the operative field, including the patient.  These surgical fires can be devastating, leading to severe burns, scarring and a lifetime of pain.  In extreme cases, a surgical fire can result in death.  Medicare considers fires in the OR to be “never events,” which means they should never happen if proper precautions are taken.

As an Ohio medical malpractice attorney, when investigating an O.R. burn case, it is important to obtain the complete medical record.  While hospitals and doctors are known for hiding evidence, and the peer review privilege prevents lawyers from obtaining incident reports, mortality and morbidity meeting minutes or other investigatory materials, the medical and nursing staff are required to maintain a comprehensive medical record that can be obtained pursuant to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).  It is also important to obtain access to equipment or materials burned as a result of the fire.  This physical evidence can provide important clues about where, how and why the fire started.

It is also important to know the roles and responsibilities of the various actors within the surgical theater.  Typically, the surgeon is the captain of the ship who controls the remaining actors’ activities.  The surgeon may or may not be an employee of the hospital.  If the surgeon is not employed directly by the hospital system, he/she is considered to be an independent contractor.  He/she may be employed by a separate corporation formed to employ one or more doctors.  If the surgeon is an independent contractor, the lawsuit will be brought against the surgeon and his/her corporation.  Under these circumstances, the hospital can only be held liable for the surgeon’s negligence in Ohio if it appears that the surgeon was an employee of the hospital, such as in an emergency situation.  These rules also apply to the anesthesiologist and certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) who may have some responsibility for a fire in the surgical suite.

In addition to the surgeon and anesthesia team, there may be surgical assistants, fellows or residents assisting in the operation or anesthesia who may be liable for injury caused by a surgical fire.  Again, the surgical assistants, fellows or residents may or may not be hospital employees.

Finally, operating room nurses may be responsible for protection of the surgical patient during an operation.  The Association of Operating Room Nurses (AORN) published its Fire Safety Tool Kit to educate nurses about precautionary measures that must be implemented to prevent unnecessary burns to helpless patients.

Because surgical fires are always preventable, when they do occur and result in harm, a claim for medical negligence exists under Ohio law.  Lawyers who handle burn cases must also be aware of the challenges that burn victims face throughout their life in order to calculate all of the damages caused by such an injury.

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