$13 Million Verdict in Plastic Surgery Malpractice Case

A jury in King County, Washington recently awarded $13 million to a patient who suffered disfigurement during a cosmetic surgery procedure after finding that the doctor who performed the surgery was liable for medical malpractice.

Plastic surgery procedure
Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Written byDani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

- Published on October 4, 2023

Plastic surgery procedure

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff sought treatment from the defendant, Dr. Kristine Brecht, for several cosmetic procedures. Dr. Brecht agreed to perform several procedures, including a full tummy tuck, an arm lift, a breast lift, and liposuction. The plaintiff had several conditions that increased certain risks associated with the procedures, according to her attorneys. These included poorly controlled type 1 diabetes and smoking, both of which increased the plaintiff’s risk of delayed or improper healing or skin necrosis following these procedures. Nonetheless, plaintiffs argued, Dr. Brecht failed to warn the patient about these risks or advise her to quit smoking before the procedures.

Plaintiffs also alleged that the physician failed to meet the standard of care during the procedure itself. Arguments focused on Dr. Brecht’s use of “Cinderella anesthesia.” Cinderella anesthesia, to which Dr. Brecht currently owns the trademark rights, combines oxycodone and lorazepam to serve as a makeshift alternative to anesthesia, along with the use of handcuffs and weights to restrain patients. The plaintiffs alleged that the use of Cinderella anesthesia left the plaintiff with memory loss.

In addition, Dr. Brecht removed too much skin from the patient during the surgery, causing excessive scarring and disfigurement, according to the plaintiffs. Finally, plaintiffs alleged that during the procedures, Dr. Brecht failed to timely address surgical-site infections or apply the appropriate treatments for post-operative care.

The Jury’s Verdict

The jury found that the physician violated the standard of care in treating her patient. Jurors also found that the doctor failed to obtain informed consent from the plaintiff before performing the procedure.

The jury’s verdict included $5 million in past damages for the injured plaintiff and $6 million in future damages. The jury also awarded the plaintiff’s husband $2 million for loss of consortium. Finally, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $34,186 for their consumer fraud claim.

The lawsuit is not the first time Dr. Brecht has been called to task for alleged failures in medical practice. In July 2023, Dr. Brecht’s medical license was suspended after a hearing in which the state medical commission found she engaged in “unprofessional misconduct” by sedating patients when she was not licensed to do so.

In 2021, the commission found Dr. Brecht failed to properly supervise her staff. Additional findings against Dr. Brecht included that the doctor administered medications that could have caused potentially dangerous drug interactions, that she failed to keep compliant surgical records, that she failed to monitor patients appropriately after procedures, and that she administered oral sedation instead of general anesthesia or intravenous sedation.

In 2019, Dr. Brecht was placed on probation and required to have an anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist perform sedatives after complications from an abdominoplasty and liposuction resulted in a patient’s death. Dr. Brecht failed to obtain an appropriate medical history or do a physical exam, which would have revealed the patient’s high risk, according to the commission.

Takeaways for Attorneys

For the plaintiff’s attorneys, a physician with a history like Dr. Brecht’s may seem an easier opponent than one with a stellar record of patient care. Yet attorneys must still lay out the connections between the defendant’s behavior and the consequences for their particular client in this particular case.

Here, efforts to educate the jury on the self-regulating nature of the medical profession were essential in helping jurors understand why the plaintiff didn’t have access to information about Dr. Brecht’s past behavior - information that would likely have helped the plaintiff make a more informed decision about her medical treatment.

For defense attorneys, protecting a client’s reputation and outcome also means focusing on particulars - such as the particulars of all the procedures their client has performed in compliance with the standard of care. These efforts can help ensure that a client’s past mistakes or censure do not cloud the jury’s understanding of what happened in this specific case.

For both sides, choosing the right expert witness matters. Experts can educate the jury on essential topics, including how procedures should be performed and how the medical profession regulates itself. They can help focus the jury on the facts of the case at hand, placing a provider’s past experience in its proper context.

The plaintiff is represented by Ruby Aliment and Vanessa Firnhaber Oslund of Bergman Oslund Udo Little.