Intuitive wins robotic surgery training case

Case is first in more than a dozen lawsuits

A Washington state jury last week found that Intuitive Surgical was not negligent in its training of a physician who performed robotic surgery on a patient who later died, Bloomberg reports.

The ruling is the first in more than two dozen similar lawsuits against Intuitive over injuries tied to its da Vinci robotic system, which was used in 400,000 surgeries across the country last year.

The da Vinci system allows surgeons to perform procedures using hand controls at a computer system several feet from the patient. The three- or four-armed robot can see inside a patient's body using a tiny video camera attached to one of the arms.

Case background

The lawsuit sought $8.45 million in damages based on claims that the deceased patient—Fred Taylor—and his family suffered because of the company's failure to adequately train Scott Bildsten, the urologist who removed his prostate gland in 2008. Taylor died last year after suffering multiple medical complications, Bloomberg notes. 

Richard Friedman, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, provided evidence at trial suggesting that Intuitive sales representatives "manipulate surgeons" by "insinuating themselves into the [OR]" to convince doctors' to use robotic surgery in lieu of traditional procedures.

Additionally, Friedman argued that Intuitive's most egregious negligence was its recommendation that surgeons are prepared to use the da Vinci system after two supervised surgeries and a one-day training seminar at the company's headquarters. The training protocol was devised by an executive with "no prior training" in medicine or medical devices, he said.

Intuitive's lawyer argued that Taylor was morbidly obese and should not have been considered a candidate for the physician's first several robotic procedures. The company advises doctors to select simple cases with patients who have low body-mass index for their first cases. 

Although Bildsten had performed 100 successful prostatectomies using traditional methods, Taylor's prostate removal was his first unassisted da Vinci procedure. After struggling to perform the robotic procedure for seven hours, Bildsten completed the procedure using traditional surgery and provided emergency care to repair a laceration, Bloomberg reports.

Response to ruling

Angela Wonson, a spokesperson for Intuitive, said in an email statement, "We are pleased with the jury’s verdict," adding, "Intuitive Surgical's technologies have extended the benefits of minimally invasive surgery to over 1.5 million patients around the world. We will continue our commitment to patients, surgeons and hospitals to uphold the highest standards of safety."

Friedman says he has not decided whether to file an appeal. There are "thousands of good cases out there" against Intuitive, and "plaintiffs’ lawyers are going to win some of those," he posits (Guthrie/Rosenblatt, Bloomberg, 5/24).

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