When most people think about product liability lawsuits involving surgical robots, they imagine the scenario where a patient undergoes an unsuccessful operation and then sues the robot manufacturer for damages. But few envision claims against robot manufacturers for injuries sustained by healthcare providers while using surgical robots. So what would such a claim look like?  And what steps can surgical robot manufacturers take to mitigate their exposure?

Gwendolyn Wilson v. Lindsey Goeglein, et al. out of Maricopa County, Arizona is a good example.  The plaintiff, a surgical nurse, was injured during an operation while assisting a doctor who was using Stryker’s Mako robot.  According to the complaint, the robot arm “released” and struck plaintiff on or about her right hand and wrist causing physical injuries and other damages. The plaintiff attributed this to either improper design/manufacture of the Mako, or a failure to adequately train and supervise robot users. The case eventually settled.

This matter is significant because it is one of the first cases we have seen concerning alleged injuries to a healthcare provider. And as more and more surgical robots make their way into operating rooms, we may start seeing claims by healthcare providers stemming not just from direct physical contact with the robots, but also from “overuse” injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome and neck and back strain.

Wilson highlights the importance of designing robots with safety features aimed at protecting not only the patients, but also end users. Such features could include sensors to prevent the robot from striking healthcare providers standing in the surgical field, and controls specifically designed to lessen stress on critical body areas like wrists, and the cervical and lumbar spine.   

To help mitigate exposure to such claims, companies should partner with ergonomics experts during product development to ensure their robots meet or exceed current ergonomic standards. They should also seek experienced legal counsel early in the product development cycle to highlight any potential areas of concern.