Injuries Due to Errors During Gallbladder Surgery

Chances are you, or someone you know, have had their gallbladder surgically removed. This operation is called a cholecystectomy. Gallbladder disease affects 12% of adults, and each year more than 700,000 Americans have their gallbladders removed. This operation involves a surgical procedure that has become commonplace in the United States. Despite its popularity, the procedure presents significant risks, such as injury to nearby organs and structures, which could require additional surgery, inflate medical bills, and/or cause serious and permanent injuries.
The gallbladder is an organ located beneath the liver which collects and stores bile. The most common issue that gives rise to gallbladder removal surgery is the presence of gallstones inside of the gallbladder or bile duct. These “stones” are formed by a combination of cholesterol and bile salts. Gallstones can block bile flow, causing the gallbladder to swell, and resulting in sharp abdominal pain, vomiting, indigestion, and fever. If the gallstones are blocking the bile duct, the skin around the area can turn a shade of yellow.

In recent decades, with the introduction of the laparoscopic cholecystectomy (as opposed to an “open” surgical procedure, which requires a large incision, with a resulting scar), there has been an increase in “closed” gallbladder surgeries. The laparoscopic procedure involves four small incisions into the abdomen, allowing the surgeon to remove the gallbladder by using a fiber-optic camera to visualize the gallbladder and the structures that surround it. About 90% of cholecystectomies are laparoscopic. Since the incisions are much smaller than a traditional cholecystectomy, recovery time is much shorter, and postoperative pain is significantly decreased.

Like many surgical procedures, even those as popular as this one, gallbladder removal surgery involves a very real risk of complications including, but not limited to: bleeding; pneumonia; infection; blood clots; heart problems; bile leakage; and unintended injuries to nearby organs and structures, commonly the bile duct or small intestine. Despite laparoscopic cholecystectomies being the favored procedure, open cholecystectomies pose significantly less risk of injury to the bile duct.

You should contact your doctor if any of the following symptoms occur after gallbladder surgery:

  • You have a persistent fever, nausea, or vomiting;
  • Your pain is not relieved by the medications provided by your physician;
  • You have a persistent cough or shortness of breath;
  • You are experiencing drainage of pus from your incision(s);
  • You have increased redness around your incision(s); or
  • You have not been able to eat or drink.

The most common medical error reported during laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the cutting of either the common bile duct or the common hepatic duct. Because the procedure is performed using a fiber-optic camera, which projects a two dimensional image (not three dimensional) onto a monitor for the surgeon to see and use to guide his instruments, surgeons sometimes mis-identify the common bile or hepatic duct for the cystic duct. Also, the surgeon is deprived of using the sense of touch to identify the various structures during a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. The cystic duct needs to be cut in order for the gallbladder to be removed. However, the common bile duct is supposed to remain intact, and an injury to that structure could mean additional surgeries, increased risk of secondary biliary cirrhosis, and liver failure.

Surgeons may limit the risk of injury to the bile duct by performing a cholangiogram before, or during, the procedure. A cholangiogram allows the surgeon to see the structures and gallstones by inserting dye into the common bile duct, thereby reducing the risk of misidentification. Surgeons may also elect to perform an open cholecystectomy, which allows them to see each structure, and avoid the risk of injuring a nearby organ, duct, or vessel. A surgeon who fails to consider and/or undertake either option, and then injures a structure during the surgery, may be held legally responsible for a patient’s injuries.

Injury to a nearby structure or organ during gallbladder surgery may have resulted from a preventable medical error. An experienced malpractice attorney can assist the injured patient, and his/her loved ones, in obtaining compensation to offset the unexpected and unwanted costs of medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and psychological issues associated with this medical injury. Surgeons, and other medical professionals, must act in a manner that meets the accepted standards of medical care. If a surgeon deviated from these standards, a medical malpractice attorney can hold that healthcare provider legally responsible.