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A recent article discussing robotic surgery mentioned how the trend towards lawsuits against the maker of the popular da Vinci robotic surgical system has taken off in recent years. Law firms across the country have been filing suits in increasing numbers, each claiming that patients have suffered serious injuries tied either to problems with the robot or with inexperienced and untrained surgeons.

According to a recent regulatory filing there have been more than 40 lawsuits filed against Intuitive Surgical, the maker of the da Vinci Surgical System, this year alone. The recent boom in lawsuits is tied to FDA statements released earlier this year that detailed several deaths and serious injuries have been tied to the technology. One allegation that has been repeated in several lawsuits is that a defect in the product leads to cracks in the surgical arm of the robot which then allows an electrical current to pass to areas outside of the surgical area, leading to burns and organ damage.

Most of these lawsuits have been filed in the Northern District of California where Intuitive Surgical is based. The lawsuits have begun to spread across the country, with 17 suits being filed in Louisiana this May seeking a collective $1.2 billion in damages. The lawsuits claim that the patients suffered unexpected injuries from the defective design and negligent use of the robots. Many of the claims note how inadequate training done by Intuitive leads to serious problems for unsuspecting patients. The suits note the lack of a standardized training curriculum for surgeons leads to a wide range of robotic surgical skills, with some doctors demonstrating dangerous gaps in knowledge. 

The trend towards using robots to perform surgical operations has taken off in recent years for several reasons. One reason is that hospitals stand to make money off the machines by attracting new patients lured in by unsubstantiated marketing claims. Another is that doctor’s like the robots for making their jobs easier. Robotic surgeons only have to maneuver the robot while seated at a computer screen, much less tiring than spending hours standing over a patient on an operating room table.

Experts say the robotic surgery cases are currently being handled as mass tort claims. Mass tort claims occur when there are many victims who claim to have been injured by a single product. This commonality allows aspects of their cases to be consolidated, such as expensive and time consuming discovery, while still allowing the plaintiffs’ claims to stand on their own.

One recent and highly lucrative example of a mass tort action was the case against Merck, the maker of Vioxx. That litigation started in a similar way, with a few courts handling tests cases that went well for plaintiffs and culminated in a $4.5 billion settlement to resolve 27,000 additional claims.

Intuitive Surgical vehemently denies that there is a problem with the company’s robots. The company says instead that the increase in problems associated with the device is merely because of a change in the way such incidents are reported. Whether this defense holds up in court remains to be seen, you can rest assured plaintiffs’ attorneys across the country will do their best to convince juries otherwise.


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