Family Sues Over Boy's Tonsillectomy Fire

Patient injured during routine surgery-- could it happen to you?

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 4:30 PM

Sept. 12, 2008— -- A California family is suing doctors and the makers of a surgical tool after a breathing tube caught fire and injured a boy during a routine tonsillectomy.

As first reported by ABC News affiliate KGO San Francisco, Andrew Garcia, then 8, suffered extensive burns to his mouth and throat and other injuries after a breathing tube suddenly caught on fire during surgery.

Andrew now has trouble breathing, said his lawyer, Joe Carcione. For his family, it was a horrifying end to a procedure that was supposed to help Andrew sleep and breathe better.

"I took my son to improve his lifestyle and [it] ended up damaging him for life," Andrew's father, Paul Garcia, told KGO.

Carcione claims the electrocauterizing device used to perform the surgery is defective and should be banned from operating rooms.

He says that the heated device burned through a breathing tube and ignited the oxygen and anesthesia being sent into the boy's lungs.

"You're working with hot devices right next to 100 percent oxygen," Carcione said. "It's the perfect environment for a catastrophe."

There are about 550 operating room fires each year, according to Mark Bruley, vice president for accident and forensic investigation at the ECRI Institute, a health care research organization. About 20 to 30 cause serious injury.

The hospital where the surgery was performed has since shut down. According to KGO, at the time, the hospital apologized to the Garcia family but said proper safety precautions had been taken. A lawyer for the doctor who performed the surgery declined to comment.

Danger of Oxygen and Breathing Tubes

ConMed, the maker of the device, warns in its operating manual never to perform electrosurgery in an oxygen rich environment. A company spokesman said in a written statement that the equipment was not defective.

"ConMed Corporation is one of numerous defendants that were sued by Andrew Garcia following an incident that occurred during a tonsillectomy procedure on April 18, 2003," the statement said. "This incident was investigated both by the California Department of Public Health and by the hospital where the event occurred and ConMed's equipment was found not defective. ConMed is defending itself vigorously in the lawsuit."

The company also filed a motion asking to bar the press from the trial, saying the media attention would prevent it from receiving a fair trial.

Millions of surgeries are performed each year. According to the ECRI Institute, most surgical fires are caused by electrosurgical equipment.

Dr. Peter Angood, chief patient safety officer at the Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits health care organizations, said that while it was impossible to know how many surgical fires take place each year, he thought the number had declined significantly in the last two decades.

Still, he said, it is important to lower the amount of oxygen to the safest amount possible and to make sure to use low voltage in electrical devices.