The stakes are notably high in a medical negligence lawsuit alleging surgical error in an operation using a da Vinci robotic system. After a trial lasting more than a month, a 12-member jury in Washington State is weighing the evidence, and its verdict will be the first to be announced against Intuitive Surgical Inc., maker and marketer of the surgical tool.

Surgeons, medical facilities, hospital insurers and patients alike are all doubtlessly watching the case closely, given its implications in every state where robotic surgery is making inroads, including New Jersey. Commentators will have a lot to say following the verdict, since more than two dozen other lawsuits claiming injuries linked to the robotic system have also been filed.

Intuitive is the sole defendant in the case, with the surgeon who performed the operation — a prostate gland removal — having already settled out of court with the patient’s family. That operation, performed in 2008, resulted in fatal complications. The victim’s estate is the plaintiff in the case against Intuitive. The estate is seeking $8.45 million in damages in the case.

The plaintiff’s attorney cited myriad ways in which Intuitive was negligent, the most compelling being a charge that the company streamlined its training for surgeons in a push to get more product out the door quickly and more surgeries done. The result of that, the jury was told, has been inadequately trained doctors who are unable in many instances to properly use the da Vinci system in surgery.

Intuitive argued at trial that the doctor was wholly to blame for the dire surgical outcome, having ignored the company’s instructions that clearly marked the patient as an unsuitable and “unduly risky” candidate for the surgery. 

The da Vinci-assisted prostate operation was the first ever for the surgeon, who had successfully performed the same surgery about 100 other times using customary methods.

Source: Bloomberg, “Intuitive robotic surgery case goes to Seattle-area jury,” Patricia Guthrie & Joel Rosenblatt,” May 21, 2013