Medical Malpractice Lawsuits for Cosmetic Surgery Errors

If something goes wrong during a cosmetic surgery, the patient may have a valid medical malpractice or breach of contract claim.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Cosmetic surgeries are unique in that they're generally optional medical procedures. Unlike the need to repair an injured joint or remove a cancerous tumor, most cosmetic operations are done for the sake of improving physical appearance.

Despite being elective, cosmetic surgeries still carry some risk. And in those rare instances when a surgery results in an unexpected injury, a patient may have the right to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Potential Injury From Cosmetic Surgery

Potential injuries and risks depend on the type of cosmetic procedure and the patient's health, but practically all cosmetic surgeries come with danger of:

  • infection
  • complications from anesthesia
  • hematoma or blood clotting
  • scarring
  • drop in blood pressure
  • necrosis (insufficient supply of oxygen causing the death of tissue)
  • nerve damage, and
  • death.

Common Cosmetic Procedures

If there's a body part that a surgeon is capable of modifying, there's probably a patient who's interested in changing it. But the cosmetic procedures listed below are more common than others.

  • Liposuction: Removal of fat deposits, often around the hips, thighs, upper arms, or abdomen. Risks include fluid loss, swelling, bruises, scars, and numbing of the skin.
  • Rhinoplasty: Reshaping of the nose. Specific risks include recurring nosebleeds, difficulty breathing through the nose, and numbness in and around the nose.
  • Breast Augmentation: Use of implants, often made of saline or silicone, to enlarge a woman's breasts. Implants can break or rupture, and some women experience hardening of the breasts, which may require additional surgery.
  • Tummy Tuck: The surgeon flattens the abdomen by removing extra fat and skin while also tightening the abdominal muscles. Wound healing is extremely slow, and permanent numbness of the abdomen may occur.
  • Facelift: Removal of excess fat, tightening of muscles, and adjustment of the skin around the face and neck. Complications can include injury to the nerves that control facial muscles. Skin discoloration is also possible.

Cosmetic Surgeon Liability

Like any other health care professional, a plastic surgeon must provide treatment to patients that is line with the appropriate standards of care. If sub-standard care leads to patient injury, medical malpractice liability may follow.

A doctor who performs cosmetic procedures can also be liable if the patient isn't injured, but is merely unhappy with the results of the elective surgery.

Liability When a Patient Is Injured

To successfully sue for medical malpractice by a cosmetic surgeon, the plaintiff typically must establish:

  • the existence of a surgeon-patient relationship
  • that the cosmetic surgeon did not comply with the applicable medical standard of care when treating the patient
  • that the plaintiff suffered harm as a result of that failure, and
  • that the plaintiff has compensable damages.

Learn more about proving medical negligence by a health care professional.

Note that the plaintiff must file his or her lawsuit within a certain period of time, under a state law called the "statute of limitations."

Liability When a Patient Is Unhappy With the Results

If the patient does not like the results of an otherwise properly-performed cosmetic surgery, they cannot sue for medical malpractice. (Learn more about when it's medical malpractice and when it isn't.) But the patient may still be able to take legal action by bringing a breach of contract or breach of warranty claim.

In a breach of contract lawsuit, the patient will argue that the bad results are the result of the surgeon not performing the surgery as set out in the agreement between patient and doctor. For example, if a doctor uses the wrong type or size of breast implants, that could lead to a breach of contract claim.

A breach of warranty claim is similar to a breach of contract claim in that it involves the doctor not providing something as agreed upon. But unlike a breach of contract case, a breach of warranty concerns the fulfillment of a promise (as to results of the surgery, for example).

Jury Prejudice in Plastic Surgery Medical Malpractice Cases

Even though medical malpractice law is fundamentally the same for both elective and medically necessary operations, juries often don't see it that way. A cosmetic surgeon can be just as reckless or negligent as a traditional doctor, but the patient's damages award doesn't reflect that. Juries tend to view elective cosmetic surgery malpractice differently from other kinds of medical errors.

The Role of Insurance in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

In most successful medical malpractice cases, it will be an insurance company that ultimately writes the plaintiff a check. Cosmetic surgery medical malpractice lawsuits are usually no different. But due to differences in the law in some states, it's easier for some cosmetic surgeons to practice medicine without medical malpractice insurance. That means some cosmetic surgeons complete surgeries without any form of financial protection for the patient if a harmful mistake occurs.

If something went wrong with your cosmetic surgery procedure, you probably have more questions than this article can answer. Medical malpractice lawsuits are tough to win, and they require professional expertise. It may be time to discuss your situation with a medical malpractice attorney.

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