Law firms seek victims of 'bad robot surgery'

Did your robot doctor mess up your insides? This lawsuit in the making sounds like a joke, but it's real.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
3 min read
Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

Is a robot about to excise your prostate? Well stop right there, mister. Here's some litigation that might interest you.

In a surreal twist to the ads you often see for legal help with accidents, arrests, or debt, law firms in Louisiana and Alabama are fishing for victims of what they call "bad robot surgery."

The ad below from Becnel Law Firm, LLC and Riley & Jackson looks like something that would play in the background of a sci-fi film, but it's serious. The campaign Web site Badrobotsurgery.com says, "Robotic surgery can severely injure the bowel, bladder, and blood vessels. Some of these injuries can even occur without the surgeon knowing it, which can lead to severe complications if left untreated."

In a video on the site, Alabama surgeon Francois Blaudeau says Intuitive Surgical's wildly popular da Vinci robot surgery system has injured patients who are having their prostate or uterus removed. He adds that the robot may not be properly insulated, causing burns or "even vascular injuries causing death."

Becnel did not respond to inquiries about whether it's leading a class-action suit, but it wouldn't be the first time robot-assisted surgery has been the focus of litigation. Last year, a jury awarded a Chicago family $7.5 million after a man died following a robot-assisted spleen removal at the University of Illinois Hospital.

Intuitive was not a defendant in that case, but it has been named in other lawsuits. Approved by the FDA in 2000, its robotic platforms cost some $1.45 million and are controlled by surgeons sitting at nearby consoles. They do not perform programmed or autonomous procedures.

"In any definitive treatment option, such as surgery of the cancerous prostate, heart, or other major organs, there are risks of complications," Intuitive spokesperson Angela Wonson tells Crave, adding the company does not comment on active litigation or sites that solicit plaintiffs.

"Da Vinci surgery was designed to reduce the risk and complications associated with open surgical procedures by extending the benefits of minimally invasive surgery to a broader population of patients.

"To date, nearly 1.5 million surgeries have been performed globally and over 4,500 peer-reviewed articles studying the da Vinci Surgical System, covering hundreds of thousands of patients by hundreds of surgeons in dozens of countries have been published."

Today, there here are 2,585 da Vinci systems in hospitals around the world. (Click to enlarge.) Intuitive Surgical

Wonson cites a large prostate cancer study in the journal European Urology that found that patients undergoing robot-assisted radical prostatectomy were less likely to receive a blood transfusion, to experience complications, or to have prolonged hospitalizations. Other long-term studies have found that robot surgery is safe.

However, a study published last month in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that hysterectomies performed with the da Vinci system cost thousands of dollars more but did not reduce complications compared with standard less-invasive surgery.

"Consumer advertising of expensive devices should be subjected to the same scrutiny as that of new and expensive medications," JAMA said in an editorial that discussed the hype surrounding the device compared to the literature.

But going under a robot's knife has a cutting-edge appeal that's irresistible to the many patients signing up, even though they may not know all the facts.

"I started doing robotic surgery two and a half years ago because I think it is the wave of the future and it will blossom into a great surgical technology that will truly benefit patients," Jacques-Pierre Fontaine, a lung cancer surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., told Crave.

"However, robotic lung surgery is also a sexy term that markets itself well. It's on billboards along highways across Florida. Patients seek surgeons who advertise that they perform robotic surgery. They may not understand the technology nor if it is truly beneficial for their specific condition, but they will drive from far away to see me in consultation specifically for a robotic procedure."

What do you think? Would you opt for robot-assisted surgery? And who would you sue if it went "bad"?