To understand the medicolegal impact of bile duct injury, we analyzed 68 cases of biliary injury resulting from open cholecystectomy and abdominal surgery. Cases were litigated within the US civil justice system between 1970 and 1991. Operations resulting in bile duct complications included cholecystectomy for cholelithiasis in 49 patients (72%), common bile duct exploration in 5 patients (7%), and other abdominal operations in 7 patients (10%); 7 operations were of unknown type. The average delay in recognition of injury was 16 days (range 3 to 42). The mortality rate was 18% (12 of 68). Median jury verdict awards in successfully litigated cases were twice that of out-of-court settlements ($500,000 versus $250,000, P = 0.01). Bile duct injury after open cholecystectomy and abdominal surgery has a high mortality rate when diagnosed late, and is expensive to litigate. This review may be useful in defining the medicolegal outcome of similar injuries from laparoscopic cholecystectomy.