Virginia Medical Malpractice, Surgery Sponge, Tool or Towel Left In Body | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Every year, doctors and surgeons leave more than 1,500 items inside their patients by accident, according to WebMD. You read that right – 1,500 items are left inside a person’s body. These items include:

  • Surgical medical clamps
  • Needles
  • Knives/knife blades
  • Sponges
  • Towels  

While some of the surgical tools are found quickly following patient pain and an x-ray, others are left for months or years causing a second surgery or causing major medical complications such as infections. 

Sponges are particularly problematic, because they cannot be easily discovered except by reopening the surgical cavity, and Virginia (VA) law does provide a special extension of the statute of limitations when the existence of the surgical tool or material is discovered at some later time.

A study in the January 16, 2003, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine sought to uncover some of the factors that increase a patient’s risk of having a sponge or other surgical item left inside them.  Researchers found that emergency surgery increased the risk of retention by almost 900% and unexpected changes in the surgical procedure more than tripled the odds of object retention. 

Other studies have suggested that item retention is due to surgical precautions that are not followed.  Most commonly, a sponge miscount occurs.  Four counts of the sponges are recommended.  The first should occur when unpackaging the surgical tools/instruments.  Before a surgery, one of the nurses attending the operating room is responsible for the second count of the sponges/towels.  The third count should occur before the surgical cavity is closed.  A final count should follow the surgery, when the same nurse is responsible for counting the sponges again to ensure that none were left in the surgical cavity.  Error occurs, however, when the initial count is misreported, a simple miscount occurs, or the sponge tears or rips inside the surgical cavity in the body, and falls apart.


New technologies such as CT scanning, ultrasonography, and RFID tagging of the sponges are being developed to aid sponge counting.  However, these technologies are currently cost-prohibitive or otherwise impractical at this point. This doesn’t excuse a doctor from leaving a surgical item inside your body. This is an abhorrent form of medical negligence and if you or someone you know suffered injuries due to a surgical tool left in your body, please contact our law firm where you will receive a free consultation from a real lawyer.  

For information about the statutes of limitations in medical malpractice cases in VA, click here, and for a discussion of the special “discovery rule” that applies to VA medical malpractice claims involving surgery sponges/tools left inside the body by a surgeon/doctor, click here.