Management of the Difficult Airway: A Closed Claims Analysis

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The purpose of this study was to identify the patterns of liability associated with malpractice claims arising from management of the difficult airway.


Using the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims database, the authors examined 179 claims for difficult airway management between 1985 and 1999 where a supplemental data collection tool was used and focused on airway management, outcomes, and the role of the 1993 Difficult Airway Guidelines in litigation. Chi-square tests and multiple logistic regression analysis compared risk factors for death or brain damage (death/BD) from two time periods: 1985–1992 and 1993–1999.


Difficult airway claims arose throughout the perioperative period: 67% upon induction, 15% during surgery, 12% at extubation, and 5% during recovery. Death/BD with induction of anesthesia decreased in 1993–1999 (35%) compared with 1985–1992 (62%; P < 0.05; odds ratio, 0.26; 95% confidence interval, 0.11–0.63; P = 0.003). In contrast, death/BD associated with other phases of anesthesia did not significantly change over the time periods. The odds of death/BD were increased by the development of an airway emergency (odds ratio, 14.98; 95% confidence interval, 6.37–35.27; P < 0.001). During airway emergencies, persistent intubation attempts were associated with death/BD (P < 0.05). Since 1993, the Airway Guidelines were used to defend care (8%) and criticize care (3%).


Death/BD in claims from difficult airway management associated with induction of anesthesia but not other phases of anesthesia decreased in 1993–1999 compared with 1985–1992. Development of additional management strategies for difficult airways encountered during maintenance, emergence, or recovery from anesthesia may improve patient safety.

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