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.