da Vinci on Trial

No, Leonardo da Vinci has not been brought back to life and put on trial, it is the new da Vinci Surgical System that was the subject of a recent products liability lawsuit that was decided in favor of the manufacturer by the Third Circuit on January 28, 2010.

In Mracek v. Bryn Mawr Hospital, No. 09-2042, 2010 WL 318372 (3d Cir. Jan. 28, 2010) [PDF], Plaintiff Ronland Mracek was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a prostatectomy. Mracek was told by his surgeon that he intended to use the da Vinci robot to assist in the surgery. However, during Mracek’s surgery, the da Vinci robot became nonoperational and merely displayed error messages. As a result, Mracek’s surgeon used laparoscopic equipment instead.

Approximately one week after Mracek’s surgery, he suffered a gross hematuria and now has severe groin pain and erectile dysfunction. Thereafter, Mracek filed suit against the hospital and the manufacturer of the da Vinci robot, Intuitive Surgical, Inc., asserting claims for strict product liability, strict malfunction liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. The hospital was voluntarily dismissed from the case and Intuitive moved to dismiss the complaint. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed with Intuitive and dismissed Mracek’s complaint.

Mracek appealed to the Third Circuit solely on his strict malfunction liability claim. While a plaintiff can prove a defect using circumstantial evidence under the malfunction theory of liability, the plaintiff must still produce “evidence of the occurrence of a malfunction and . . . evidence eliminating abnormal use or reasonable, secondary causes for the malfunction.” Id. at *1 (internal citations omitted). Further, even if a plaintiff is able to prove the existence of a defect in this manner, he or she still has the burden of proving the defect caused the plaintiff’s injury and that the defect existed when it left the manufacturer’s control.

Mracek’s claim failed on multiple levels. First, the Third Circuit stated that the mere fact that “the robot displayed ‘error’ messages and was unable to complete the surgery” was insufficient evidence to eliminate reasonable, secondary causes for the malfunction. Id. at * 2. Further, the Court found that his own testimony and the testimony of two treating physicians regarding his pre and post operative condition was insufficient to prove that his erectile dysfunction and groin pain were caused by the robot’s alleged malfunction. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Mracek’s complaint. Id.

This opinion again demonstrates the importance of expert testimony in products liability actions. It instructs that merely coming to court and stating that a product malfunctioned is insufficient. Plaintiffs who fail to prove proximate cause should have their claims dismissed.

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