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Every operation or surgical procedure carries some risk to the patient but many of the greatest risks to patients come from having the operation performed under general anaesthesia.

Anaesthetists play a vital role in assessing and minimising the patient’s risk, and in monitoring and managing their comfort and safety. This role begins before surgery, continues throughout the operation, and supports the patient through recovery and, if needed, post-operatively into intensive care (ITU). 

Good anaesthetic care, technique and skill is often taken for granted by patients who are more concerned about the surgical outcome of their operation. However, even a minor mistake by the anaesthetist, at any stage in the patient’s journey through surgery, can result in devastating injury.

Previous Cases

Compensation settlement for a woman who suffered a psychological injury after residual anaesthetic drugs from earlier surgery were flushed through her cannula. The drugs left her unable to breathe, move or communicate her distress to the nursing staff. She believed she was going to die, and eventually passed out. Following the incident she required treatment for anxiety and flashbacks

Compensation settlement for a woman who underwent surgery whilst still conscious but unable to breathe or move or communicate her pain or awareness to the anaesthetist who had negligently administered her anaesthetic drugs in the wrong order. She suffered a severe psychological injury with PTSD.

Compensation settlement for a client who suffered a severe psychiatric injury including PTSD when she was left conscious and in excruciating pain but paralysed and unable to communicate with the anaesthetist who had negligently given her the wrong dosage of anaesthetic drugs.

What are the risks from anaesthetic?

The Royal College of Anaesthetists has published several leaflets on its website explaining the types of minor and major injury that can arise from having an anaesthetic. 

Although rare, the most severe injuries include:

  • death;
  • brain damage;
  • stroke;
  • pain and psychological damage (PTSD) from awareness during surgery;
  • nerve damage;
  • anaphylaxis (severe life-threatening allergic reaction to medication).
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Who is at increased risk from anaesthesia?

It is part of the anaesthetist’s job to assess each patient’s individual risk before surgery. Many of the risks from having an anaesthetic cannot be predicted. For example, it is not always possible to know how a patient who has never had an anaesthetic before will react to the anaesthetic drugs.

Anaesthetists make their assessment based on general risks associated with having surgery under general anaesthetic and any additional risk arising from the patient’s own health, allergies, lifestyle and type of surgery.

Patients having a general anaesthetic may have a higher risk of serious complications if they:

  • are older;
  • are having major surgery on organs such as the heart, lungs, brain or bowel, or on major blood vessels;
  • are having emergency surgery, or surgery for major trauma;
  • are very unwell the time of surgery or have other health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, liver disease, cancer;
  • smoke;
  • are overweight or very unfit;
  • have allergies to medication.
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What does the anaesthetist do during surgery?

The anaesthetist keeps the patient in a state of controlled unconsciousness during surgery. They do this with drugs which block the nerve signals to the brain, so that the patient cannot feel anything during the operation. This is what we mean when we say a patient is ‘anaesthetised’, or ‘put under’.

The anaesthetist also administers muscle relaxants to the anaesthetised patient. The muscle relaxants keep the patient’s body relaxed so they can’t move during surgery. This makes it easier for the surgeon to operate safely but it also affects the patient’s ability to breathe. Whilst the patient is unable to breathe, the  anaesthetist uses a ventilator machine which breathes for the patient by passing oxygen through a tube which must be properly fitted into their airway (trachea).

The anaesthetist must monitor the patient throughout the operation, for example, to check their blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and that the patient is receiving the correct amount of oxygen. 

They must be alert to warning signs of complications, including any sign that the patient is becoming conscious or feeling pain, or is losing too much blood and needs fluid, or is suffering from some other complication or reaction. If a warning sign appears, they must react quickly to correct the problem. In the case of a severe allergic (anaphylactic) reaction this may mean stopping the operation.

They use a lot of equipment, including ventilators, monitors and alarms, to oxygenate the patient, administer drugs, fluids and gases, and monitor their vital signs.

They are responsible for checking the equipment before and during the operation and noticing if the equipment is not working properly from a fault, a blockage or, in the case of a tube, if it has not been properly fitted or secured or has been knocked out of place.

After surgery they are responsible for ensuring that the patient recovers consciousness and is able to breathe safely and for ensuring that the patient has come through the anaesthetic without any serious ill effects.

When a patient is treated under local or regional anaesthetic, (such as a spinal or epidural)  the anaesthetist must use their skill, judgment and correct technique when administering the anaesthetic to avoid serious injury to nerves, such as paralysis, or other serious reactions, such as anaphylaxis.

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What kind of mistakes lead to anaesthetic negligence claims?

Anaesthetic mistakes which often lead to successful compensation claims include:

  • equipment failure;
  • risk assessment errors;
  • incorrect intubation or ’putting patient under’:
  • extubation/reviving the patient errors;
  • ventilation, oxygenation and airway negligence;
  • monitoring failures;
  • delayed or failed resuscitation;
  • failing to monitor or react to signs that the patient is aware during surgery;
  • drug or gas errors – giving the wrong type or amount;
  • anaphylaxis (drug allergy) negligence;
  • injection negligence, such as:
    • injecting anaesthetic into the spinal cord;
    • damaging a nerve by injection;
    • injecting patient with drugs to which they are allergic; 
  • IV (intravenous) cannula flushing errors;
  • negligent recovery or intensive care treatment.
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What kind of anaesthetic mistakes can be compensated?

Not all injuries during surgery or under anaesthetic are caused by negligence. To have the best chance of success, these claims must be handled by clinical negligence solicitors who specialise in serious injury claims.

Where a patient has suffered serious injury during surgery or a general anaesthetic, our skilled clinical negligence lawyers review the medical records to investigate whether their injury was caused by negligence or equipment failure and they are entitled to compensation.

Common claims for serious injury arising from errors by anaesthetists include:

  • brain damage caused by lack of oxygen, such as:
    • when a ventilator has inadvertently been switched off;
    • when breathing equipment is faulty, blocked, alarms don’t sound or are ignored;
    • when the wrong gas has been given;
    • when the endotracheal tube has been incorrectly placed as a result of poor technique, or has become dislodged (intubation error);
    • when the patient’s breathing tube has been removed too soon before muscle relaxants have worn off, leaving them unable to breathe (extubation error);
    • when residual anaesthetic muscle relaxant drugs are not properly flushed out of IV equipment;
    • from resuscitation failure;
  • nerve damage, paralysis or spinal injury;
  • PTSD and severe psychological injury from anaesthetic awareness - waking up paralysed (from muscle relaxants) but unable to communicate whilst feeling intense pain during the operation;
  • anaphylactic shock from severe allergic reaction to anaesthetic drugs;
  • cardiac arrest (heart attack);
  • stroke;
  • organ damage from clinical shock;
  • PVS or minimally aware state (coma);
  • death.
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What compensation is paid for injury caused by anaesthetic negligence?

The amount of compensation depends on the type of injury, its impact on the patient’s life and their additional needs arising from the injury. Where the injury is severe, compensation may be recovered for: 

  • pain and suffering;
  • loss of earnings;
  • nursing care costs;
  • therapies, such as:
    • physiotherapy;
    • occupational therapy;
    • speech and language therapy;
    • psychological counselling;
  • case management;
  • pain management;
  • adapted accommodation;
  • specialist equipment;
  • adapted vehicles;
  • prostheses;
  • assistive technology;
  • private medical costs;
  • domestic assistance;
  • bereavement award (if eligible, following the patient’s death);
  • funeral costs;
  • loss of dependency on deceased family member’s income and services.

Where liability is admitted, we obtain early interim payments to ease our clients’ financial hardship and help meet their urgent needs arising from the injury. This means that while we work with our experts on valuing and preparing the case for settlement, our clients can begin to rebuild their lives.  

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How can Boyes Turner help?

Our medical negligence lawyers help individuals and their families who are left bereaved, disabled or seriously injured by medical negligence claim substantial sums of compensation.

Money cannot take away the injury, but compensation has helped hundreds of our clients pay for essential care and equipment, move into adapted accommodation, pay for private therapies and psychological counselling, and restore financial stability after a serious injury or devastating loss has affected their own and their family’s lives.

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Meet your team

Susan Brown


Richard Money-Kyrle


Julie Marsh

Senior associate - solicitor

Vanessa Wand

Senior associate - solicitor

Rachel Makore

Associate - solicitor

Alpa Rana

Associate - solicitor

Fran Rothwell

Associate solicitor

Sita Soni

Associate - solicitor

Tara Byrne


Ben Ireland


Audrey Elmore

Medical records coordinator

Aimee Gaston

Trainee Solicitor

Nicky Melville

Professional support assistant

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Anaesthetic negligence claims cases

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