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Was Rep. Murtha' Death After Surgery From Medical Malpractice?

February 15, 2010

On January 28, 2010, Representative John Murth (D-PA) underwent a routine gallbladder procedure. Less than two weeks later, the powerful congressman died. There is no dispute the Rep. Murtha died as a result of complications from the procedure. Was Murtha' death a result of medical malpractice or simply a bad outcome?

Gallbladder surgery, or Cholecystectomy, is the surgical removal of the gallbladder. The procedure is commonly used to treat painful gallbladder stones and is usually performed laparoscopically. Patients normally discharged home within two day after the procedure. In rare instances, complications can develop. If the bile duct (which connects the gallbladder to the liver) is cut or otherwise injured during surgery, a serious and potentially deadly infection called can develop called peritonitis. According to a Consensus Development Conference panel, convened by the National Institutes of Health nearly two decades ago, laparoscopic cholecystectomy should only be performed by experienced surgeons. The panel also observed that surgical outcomes are greatly influenced by the training, experience, skill, and judgment of the surgeon.

Many in the medical community would argue that a bile duct injury during gallbladder surgery can happen without malpractice and is not necessarily a surgical error. Although a surgeon' job must include identifying all significant anatomical landmarks, some argue that adjoining structures can still be damaged despite best efforts. Other medical experts would argue a bile duct injury during a routine ballbladder surgery should almost never occur if the surgeon is properly visualizing the surgery field, which includes visualizing and identifying where not to cut. If the bile duct is inadvertently cut, some medical experts contend this should be certainly be noticed and promptly repaired. This may require the surgeon to call in a specialist. Regardless of how the bile duct was injured or whether it was noticed during surgery, patient' often exhibits signs and symptoms of infection including unexpected pain.

Whether Rep. Murtha' death was a preventable medical mistake is premature. There are too many unanswered questions. However, what is clear is that bad outcomes can happen to anyone, including members of Congress. Indeed, an estimated 100,000 people die every year from avoidable medical errors. It is true some deaths from surgery can occur under the best of care. One of the most common arguments in any surgical death case is that death is a risk of the procedure. However, does that mean the surgeon should not be held responsible if they negligently caused the patient' death? Consider driving a car. Death is a risk of driving a car. Does that mean a guy who ran a red light and killed another driver should not be held responsible? Thus, the issue is not whether the complication that took Rep. Murtha' life was a known risk of the procedure. The issue is whether the complication that took his life was an avoidable had the standard of care been followed.

Posted by: Chicago Medical Malpractice Lawyer Jason M. Kroot of Kroot Law, LLC

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