When cosmetic and elective procedures cause harm, the plastic surgeon may be held responsible in civil court.

All surgical procedures carry some amount of risk. When a patient undergoes surgery, they are typically informed about the inherent dangers associated with the procedure. In most cases, the surgeon and medical team performing the procedures are highly skilled, properly trained and experienced enough to perform the surgery without committing errors. But not all surgeries are successful, and in some cases, surgical errors lead to permanent injury or even death.

In this article, we'll spotlight a few key issues when it comes to medical malpractice lawsuits over elective or cosmetic surgery.

Cosmetic Surgery Injuries and Errors

It is estimated that there are nearly two million cosmetic surgeries performed each year in the United States and another nine million minimally invasive procedures done. The general risks for all cosmetic procedures include:

  • infection
  • allergic reaction and other complications from anesthesia
  • hematoma or blood clotting under the skin
  • scarring
  • drop in blood pressure
  • necrosis (insufficient supply of oxygen causing death of tissue)
  • nerve damage, and
  • death due to severe complications

Specific Elective Surgery Procedures and Risks

Liposuction—The removal of fat deposits often performed on the abdomen, buttocks, hips, thighs, and upper arms. The risks of this procedure may include fluid loss, swelling, bruises, scars, and a numbing of the skin.

Rhinoplasty—The reshaping of the nose to make it bigger, smaller or to narrow the span of the nostrils or change the angle between the nose and upper lip. Specific risks include recurring nosebleeds, difficulty breathing through the nose and numbness in and around the nose.

Breast Augmentation—The enlarging of a woman’s breasts using saline or silicone-filled implants. Implants can break or rupture and some women experience hardening of the breasts which may require additional surgery.

Eyelid Surgery—Drooping upper eyelids and bags below the eyes are corrected by removing extra fat, muscle, and skin. Specific risks include retinal detachment and ectropian (drooping effect causing the lower lid to invert) which both require additional surgery to correct.

Tummy Tuck—The abdomen is flattened and extra fat and skin is removed while abdominal muscles are tightened. Wound healing is extremely slow and permanent numbness of the abdomen may occur.

Face Lift—Excess fat is removed and muscles are tightened before the skin is redraped, resulting in tighter skin on the face and neck. Injury to the nerves that control facial muscles, and skin discoloration may occur.

Dermabrasion—Wrinkles and facial blemishes are rubbed out scraping away the top layers of skin, leaving softer and newer layers. The most common complication is the formation of keloid, a type of abnormal scar that results from excessive collagen production.

Hair Transplants—A surgical procedure in which tiny patches of scalp are removed from the back and sides of the head and implanted in the bald spots in the front and top of the head. The major downside of this procedure is more cosmetic than health-related: the grafted area does not look the way the patient expected it to look.

Breast Reduction—Both men and women may elect to have this procure. A condition called gynecomastia causes some men to develop breasts that resemble women’s. Women may choose to have breast reduction surgery to alleviate discomfort or to achieve a breast size in proportion with their body. The risks may include loss of sensation in the nipples and areola, scarring, the inability to breastfeed, and breasts may not be symmetrical in size and shape after surgery.

Lip Augmentation—The surgeon hollows out a portion of the lip and inserts an implant to give the lips a more full appearance. The specific side effects of lip augmentation include lumping, scarring, numbness, cold sores, and asymmetrical lips.

Prior to performing any kind of surgery, a doctor should fully evaluate the patient’s current health and medical history, use of medications, alcohol, tobacco and their family history. Surgeons who perform elective surgery should also have a thorough understanding of the patient’s aesthetic goals.

Liability of the Doctor

Like any other health care professional, plastic surgeons must exercise a high degree of medical competency and care when treating patients. Failure to provide the level of skill, care, and treatment that a reasonable plastic surgeon would provide under similar circumstances may rise to the level of medical malpractice. This is defined as treatment that doesn’t meet accepted medical standards, and which causes injury to the patient. By law, a surgeon must disclose the most common known dangers of surgery and the likelihood that they will occur.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

Plastic surgery errors can leave a patient with lifelong complications. The victim may require numerous corrective surgeries and experience disfigurement, lost income, chronic pain and psychological difficulties. To successfully sue for medical malpractice, you must be able to show:

  • the existence of a surgeon/patient relationship
  • that the surgeon failed to act with the level of skill and care that a reasonably competent surgeon would have provided under similar circumstances
  • that the plaintiff suffered injuries as a result of that failure, and that
  • the damages were caused by the breach of duty

Watch the Statute of Limitations

Every state has laws that limit the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a claim for damages. This is known as the statute of limitations, and the law varies in each state. Typically, the timeframe can range from one to five years from the time the medical malpractice occurred, or when the malpractice was discovered. To find the time limit in your state, see this chart.

Potential For Jury Prejudice in Cosmetic/Elective Surgery Cases

While juries are instructed to follow the strict letter of law and available evidence when deliberating a case, it’s human nature to bring bias into the equation. When it comes to elective medical procedures, jurors may bring prejudice against the patient into the deliberation room. “She shouldn’t have done the surgery in the first place”, or “he didn’t need that procedure done”, or “this could have been avoided if she was happy with the body she had”. These are all common views that anyone might have about a patient undergoing plastic surgery. And anyone can become a juror.

The defense in a cosmetic surgery malpractice case is well aware of this fact, and will use it to minimize the pre-trial settlement offers. In these cases, an experienced medical malpractice lawyer can mean all the difference.

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