Before undergoing a surgical procedure, a patient is placed under anesthesia, which temporarily paralyzes their arms and legs to prevent movement and pain. However, the muscles in their digestive and respiratory systems are paralyzed as well, meaning a condition known as aspiration during surgery can occur.

When a patient aspirates, their stomach contents escape through the esophagus and into the mouth. On paper, that may sound similar to something like acid reflux or vomiting, but in the case of aspiration, the backflow is specifically caused by anesthesia, and it results in gastric content being inhaled into the lungs instead of regurgitated.

Unless a trained anesthesiologist oversees the patient during their procedure, a surgeon might not have time to prevent permanent brain injury or death as a result of the lungs being compromised. With that said, it’s vital to understand when and how aspiration during surgery constitutes an act of medical malpractice.

The Risks and Consequences of Aspiration During Surgical Procedures

The lower sphincter of the esophagus sits just above the stomach and closes after food or drinks enter the stomach to prevent them from flowing backward. General anesthesia, however, causes the esophageal sphincter to relax, meaning particulates, acid, and bacteria can leak back out of the stomach, up the esophagus, and into the mouth.

At the same time, general anesthesia paralyzes the larynx, stopping the reflexes that normally shut the airway to prevent you from inhaling liquids. As a result, you are put in danger of inhaling the gastric contents that reach your mouth.

Some risk factors for intraoperative aspiration involve the following:

Surgery on a Full Stomach

Doctors typically advise patients to fast before surgery, but there are circumstances in which a patient may not have enough prior warning.

Labor, for instance, can occur at any time, and many Cesarean section deliveries are unplanned as well, which means mothers have likely eaten before undergoing these procedures. If the doctor decides to use general anesthesia over a regional anesthetic, the patient may suffer intraoperative aspiration.

Similarly, when patients require emergency surgery, such as after suffering an injury in a car accident, they obviously cannot refrain from eating beforehand, leading to an increased risk of aspiration during surgery.

Pre-Existing Conditions

Certain medical conditions also increase the risk of gastric reflux, including obesity, the existence of hernias, and more serious ailments, such as esophageal cancer. Patients with these conditions may have too much pressure on — or too little strength in — their lower esophageal sphincter to prevent gastric contents from backflowing during surgery.

Unskilled Surgeon

A study looked at records for 28 cases of aspiration during surgery; researchers found all but one of these cases, roughly 96%, resulted from a medical error and that 89% were preventable.

When Does Aspiration Become Negligence?

If the statistics above were to be extrapolated to all intraoperative aspiration cases, most would involve medical negligence.

Logically, aspiration becomes negligence when a provider could have acted to either prevent aspiration from happening altogether or reduce the severity of the injuries resulting from aspiration already occurring. Be that as it may, every case is unique, as negligence is judged based on its specific circumstances.

As such, proving negligence may require your lawyer to hire expert witnesses to testify about the steps a reasonable provider would have taken, including the following:

  • Stressing the need for pre-operative fasting where possible
  • Monitoring the patient for signs of aspiration
  • Reviewing the patient’s medical history for risk factors
  • Using regional anesthesia instead of general anesthesia in high-risk cases
  • Intubating the patient if general anesthesia is necessary in high-risk cases

When you or a loved one experiences aspiration, a Florida medical malpractice lawyer can review your case to determine whether it potentially arose from medical negligence.

Medical Duty of Care in Surgical Settings

Negligence is the basis of many medical malpractice suits, so in order to make a successful case, your attorney will have to demonstrate that the doctor was negligent in his duties.

The primary means of establishing negligence is showing that one’s injury was caused by a medical provider’s failure to provide a professional standard (or duty) of care, which comprises the actions a reasonably prudent and skilled healthcare provider would have taken under similar circumstances.

Intraoperative aspiration is one of the many risks involved with administering general anesthesia and is, therefore, one that any surgeon must take measures to prevent. They must also spring into action should aspiration occur to try to prevent the worst outcomes, such as permanent lung damage, brain injury, and death.

Steps to Take if You Suspect Malpractice

If you believe you are a victim of medical malpractice, gather your medical records and speak with a lawyer immediately. Florida has a very complicated statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases, meaning your lawyer will need as much time as possible to investigate your claims and gather the evidence needed to support them.


Some answers to common questions people also ask about intraoperative aspiration cases are as follows:

What Happens if My Loved One Dies From Intraoperative Aspiration?

In Florida, you can file a wrongful death claim when you lose a loved one due to aspiration caused by someone else’s negligent or wrongful actions; to pursue a claim, your lawyer must show that the death resulted from medical negligence.

What if I Disobeyed My Doctor’s Instructions to Fast Before Surgery?

Florida uses comparative negligence when multiple people contribute to the cause of an injury. That means you will be assigned a share of the blame if you contributed to your injuries, but the doctor could also be found at fault. You can recover damages as long as you receive 50% or less of the blame.

What Damages Can I Seek?

You can seek compensation for economic damages, like medical bills and lost income, and non-economic damages, like pain and suffering.

Learn About Malpractice for Aspiration During Surgery

Every intraoperative aspiration case will involve a unique set of facts, so contact Ratzan Weissman & Boldt for a free consultation. We’ll discuss the circumstances of the aspiration you or your loved one experienced and how we can help establish your claim.