Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research ®

A Publication of The Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons ®

What Adverse Events and Injuries Are Cited in Anesthesia Malpractice Claims for Nonspine Orthopaedic Surgery?

Christopher D. Kent MD, Linda S. Stephens PhD, Karen L. Posner PhD, Karen B. Domino MD, MPH



Malpractice claims that arise during the perioperative care of patients receiving orthopaedic procedures will frequently involve both orthopaedic surgeons and anesthesiologists. The Anesthesia Closed Claims database contains anesthesia malpractice claim data that can be used to investigate patient safety events arising during the care of orthopaedic patients and can provide insight into the medicolegal liability shared by the two specialties.


(1) How do orthopaedic anesthetic malpractice claims differ from other anesthesia claims with regard to patient and case characteristics, common events and injuries, and liability profile? (2) What are the characteristics of patients who had neuraxial hematomas after spinal and epidural anesthesia for orthopaedic procedures? (3) What are the characteristics of patients who had orthopaedic anesthesia malpractice claims for central ischemic neurologic injury occurring during shoulder surgery in the beach chair position? (4) What are the characteristics of patients who had malpractice claims for respiratory depression and respiratory arrests in the postoperative period?


The Anesthesia Closed Claims Project database was the source of data for this study. This national database derives data from a panel of liability companies (national and regional) and includes closed malpractice claims against anesthesiologists representing > 30% of practicing anesthesiologists in the United States from all types of practice settings (hospital, surgery centers, and offices). Claims for damage to teeth or dentures are not included in the database. Patient characteristics, type of anesthesia, damaging events, outcomes, and liability characteristics of anesthesia malpractice claims for events occurring in the years 2000 to 2013 related to nonspine orthopaedic surgery (n = 475) were compared with claims related to other procedures (n = 1592) with p < 0.05 as the criterion for statistical significance and two-tailed tests. Odds ratios and their 95% confidence intervals were calculated for all comparisons. Three types of claims involving high-impact injuries in patients undergoing nonspine orthopaedic surgery were identified through database query for in-depth descriptive review: neuraxial hematoma (n = 10), central ischemic neurologic injury in the beach chair position (n = 9), and injuries caused by postoperative respiratory depression (n = 23).


Nonspine orthopaedic anesthesia malpractice claims were more frequently associated with nerve injuries (125 of 475 [26%], odds ratio [OR] 2.12 [1.66–2.71]) and events arising from the use of regional anesthesia (125 of 475 [26%], OR 6.18 (4.59–8.32) than in malpractice claims in other areas of anesthesia malpractice (230 of 1592 [14%] and 87 of 1592 [6%], respectively, p < 0.001 for both comparisons). Ninety percent (nine of 10) of patients with claims for neuraxial hematomas were receiving anticoagulant medication and all had severe long-term injuries, most with a history of significant delay in diagnosis and treatment after first appearance of signs and symptoms. Central ischemic injuries occurring during orthopaedic surgery in the beach chair position did not occur solely in patients who would have been considered at high risk for ischemic stroke. Patients with malpractice claims for injuries resulting from postoperative respiratory depression events had undergone lower extremity procedures (20 of 23 [87%]) and most events (22 of 23 [96%]) occurred on the day of surgery or the first postoperative day.


Nonspine orthopaedic anesthesia malpractice claims more frequently cited nerve injury and events arising from the use of regional anesthesia than other surgical anesthesia malpractice claims. This may reflect the frequency of regional anesthesia in orthopaedic cases rather than increased risk of injury associated with regional techniques. When neuraxial procedures and anticoagulation regimens are used concurrently, care pathways should emphasize clear lines of responsibility for coordination of care and early investigation of any unusual neurologic findings that might indicate neuraxial hematoma. We do not have a good understanding of the factors that render some patients vulnerable to the rare occurrence of intraoperative central ischemic injury in the beach chair position, but providers should carefully calculate cerebral perfusion pressure relative to measured blood pressure for patients in the upright position. Postoperative use of multiple opioids by different concurrent modes of administration warrant special precautions with consideration given to the provision of care in settings with enhanced respiratory monitoring. The limitations of retrospective closed claims database review prevent conclusions regarding causation. Nonetheless, the collection of relatively rare events with substantial clinical detail provides valuable data to generate hypotheses about causation with potential for future study to improve patient safety.

Level of Evidence

Level III, therapeutic study.

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