Medical malpractice and facial nerve paralysis

Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2003 Jan;129(1):50-3. doi: 10.1001/archotol.129.1.50.


Background: Iatrogenic facial nerve paralysis is a devastating surgical complication that occasionally results in litigation.

Objective: To analyze litigation trends to better understand the causes and outcomes of suits involving facial nerve paralysis to prevent future litigation and improve physician education.

Design: Retrospective review.

Setting: All US civil trials.

Participants: All state and federal civil trials alleging malpractice and facial nerve paralysis were reviewed.

Methods: Jury verdict reviews from January 1, 1985, to December 31, 2000, were obtained from a computerized legal database and analyzed. Reviews compile data on defendants, plaintiffs, allegations of wrong doing, and expert witness specialties, and provide case summaries. Fifty-three cases from 19 of the 50 states were obtained. Data were entered into a spreadsheet for analysis.

Main outcome measures: Verdicts and indemnity payments.

Results: Suits reviewed were as follows: cosmetic, 12 (23%); otologic, 13 (25%); nonneoplastic disease of the parotid or other benign conditions of the head and neck, 15 (28%); benign neoplasms of the parotid, 9 (17%); malignant neoplasms of the parotid, 1 (2%); and temporomandibular joint operations, 3 (6%) (percentages do not total 100 because of rounding). Allegations of negligence were frequently multiple and included lack of informed consent (16 [30%] of 53), failure to diagnose (10 [19%] of 53), and surgical misadventures (47 [89%] of 53). Excluding failure to obtain consent or to diagnose, 28 suits still alleged negligence based solely on a surgical misadventure. Of these suits, 12 (63%) resulted in plaintiff awards.

Conclusions: Surgeons must emphasize and document the likelihood and consequences of this devastating complication to all patients undergoing surgery in this area. Risk management goals include a thorough and timely examination and careful and thoughtful surgical approaches. However, patient rapport and bedside manner may be the only protection the surgeon has from litigation arising from this complication.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Facial Paralysis / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease
  • Male
  • Malpractice / statistics & numerical data*
  • Mental Recall
  • Middle Aged
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Surgical Procedures / adverse effects*
  • Otorhinolaryngologic Surgical Procedures / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United States / epidemiology