Doctor Not Liable for Setting Woman on Fire During C-Section
A doctor who performed a flaming C-section on a patient is not liable for the woman’s burn injuries, a jury ruled last month.
Stephen Brown, an obstetrician at Crouse Hospital in New York, was conducting a cesarean section on Kira Reed in March 2010 to deliver her second child. During the operation, Reed noticed a strange odor in the air. “I could not come up with the word for what I was smelling,” she told a local news source. “It did not smell like anything recognizable.”
It turned out to be the smell of her burning abdomen, after a cauterizing tool ignited an alcohol-based surgical preparatory agent that had been used on her skin. Fortunately, the doctor was able to put out the fire immediately with no damage to the child. Reed left the hospital with a healthy baby girl and a large third degree burn on her side.
A month previously, DuraPrep, the company that sold the flammable antiseptic, had warned hospitals to let the solution dry thoroughly before operating to prevent fires. However, nurses at Crouse testified that they had no idea the solution was a fire danger. Reed sued and settled with the hospital for undisclosed terms earlier this year. The doctor, however, was found not liable by a jury because he had not been responsible for the patient’s preparation before surgery.
Liquid Pools and Trapped Gas
Surgical fires are uncommon but not unheard of. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 550 to 650 such fires occur every year, some of them fatal.
“Surgical fires are preventable events that occur when a doctor and medical staff fail to follow the patient-safety rules,” says Anthony T. DiPietro, a medical malpractice attorney and founder of the Law Office of Anthony T. DiPietro in New York. “This is why manufacturers of alcohol-based skin preparations issue warning letters that caution doctors about the use of electrical equipment with their products.”
Doctors can reduce the risk of fire when using antiseptics by waiting for the solution to dry before using sparking tools like cauterizing devices, DiPietro notes, but the gasses from alcohol solutions can also be an ignition risk. “Currently, the product manufacturers warn that medical personnel must avoid dripping the preparation around the surgical site when it’s being applied,” the attorney says. “If a pool of liquid develops, it will continue to be a source of fuel for a surgical fire long after the liquid applied to the patient’s skin has dried.”
“Further, it is well known that surgical ‘tents’ which are erected over a patient’s body – just above the surgical site – can entrap the highly flammable gases that evaporate from either the patient’s body, or from pooled liquid around the surgical site,” says DiPietro. “This entrapped gas can then be ignited by a heat source – such as electric cautery equipment – and cause serious injuries to the patients.”
Without admitting negligence, the hospital took full responsibility for Reed’s burns even before the settlement. While the doctor himself was found not liable in this case, it is incumbent on the entire medical team to ensure that every patient is operated on in safety, and not lit on fire.
“While patient education has been touted as way to reduce bad surgical outcomes in the pre and post-operative periods, doctors and hospital staff must not forget that education among themselves and their peers remains paramount,” DiPietro says. “The ongoing failure by hospitals and their medical staff to appreciate the dangers created by the use of flammable substances in operating rooms is inexcusable.”