Malpractice Liability for Hip Replacement Surgery Errors

There are a variety of ways a surgeon or hospital can be held liable in a lawsuit following an unsuccessful hip replacement.

Hip replacement surgery has become pretty common lately, but these types of surgeries do pose some risks, and serious mistakes by the surgeon can amount to medical malpractice if a patient ends up suffering some measure of harm. Let's take a look at hip replacement surgery and the kinds of things you need to consider before you make a medical malpractice claim.

Why Have Hip Replacement Surgery?

In a hip replacement surgery, the surgeon removes most or all of the worn out joint and replaces it with an artificial joint. The most common reason to have a joint replacement is osteoarthritis, a condition in which the cartilage in a joint breaks down or wears down. The purpose of cartilage is to prevent bones from rubbing against each other at the joints, so worn down cartilage will allow the bones to rub together, which is very painful.

What Are The Risks?

Hip replacement surgery raises two types of risks: the kinds of risks that arise from any type of surgery, and those risks that are specifically related to joint replacement surgery.

Some of the more common general risks of surgery are a heart attack or stroke occurring during the procedure, breathing problems after surgery, post-operative infections, and post-operative falls.

Risks specifically related to hip replacement surgery include:

  • excessive bleeding during the surgery
  • blood clots during or soon after the surgery (joint replacement surgery may cause either or both of two types of blood clots – deep vein thrombosis, which is when a blood clot forms in the leg after the surgery, or a pulmonary embolism, which is when a blood clot travels to the lungs)
  • infection in the new joint
  • weakness and/or stiffness in the new joint
  • loosening of the new joint over time
  • breaking of the new joint over time due to wear and tear
  • allergic reaction to the artificial joint
  • excessive and long-lasting pain from the surgery and the new joint
  • changed leg length.

One additional factor to know about hip replacement surgery is that the artificial joint has a limited lifespan -- they only last from 10 to 20 years, on average.

When Does an Error Rise to the Level of Neligence?

In order to prove that a physician or surgeon was negligent in connection with a hip replacement, your lawyer first has to obtain all of your medical records relating to the treatment in question.

The lawyer wants to make sure that he/she understands as well as possible exactly why the surgeon made the decision to recommend and perform the surgery. Then, your lawyer will hire a medical expert witness to read your records and provide an opinion as to whether the surgeon was negligent. Unless a qualified medical expert gives an opinion that the surgeon was negligent, you will not be able to proceed with a lawsuit against the surgeon. In other words, most medical malpractice plaintiffs will prove medical negligence through an expert medical witness.

In coming up with his/her opinion, your expert witness will consider things like:

  • your medical condition pre-surgery
  • your complaints
  • your doctor's objective medical findings
  • your doctor's experience in performing joint replacement surgeries
  • what the medical textbooks say on when joint replacement surgeries should be performed
  • what the doctor explained to you about the risks and benefits of the surgery, and the known complication rate of the surgery, among other things.

The textbook recommendations and your physician's objective medical findings are very important factors in joint replacement cases.

Let's look at an example. Let's say that you have hip pain, that you have to take painkillers after intense exercise, and that there are some things that you can't do at all, but that you're living with it. Your surgeon recommends a hip replacement, and you have the surgery, but the new hip just doesn't work out well for you. You still have pain and stiffness, and one of your legs is now a half inch shorter than the other.

In this case, your surgeon could theoretically be found negligent on both his/her decision to recommend and perform the surgery in the first place, and on his/her performance of the surgery. The surgeon's decision to recommend the surgery might be negligent because your pain might not have been severe enough for hip replacement surgery, according to medical textbooks. Then, when your lawyer's medical expert evaluates exactly how the surgeon performed the operation, he/she might find that the surgeon made a mistake in the operation that caused your leg to be shorter.

Let's add to this example by saying that you were only 43 when the surgeon recommended the hip replacement and that he/she never told you that hip replacements only last 10-20 years. If you had known that, you would have waited until you were older to have the hip replacement to avoid having to have a second replacement surgery. In this situation, the surgeon might be additionally liable for failing to give you very important information about the surgery.

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