Captain Of The Ship Doctrine: When Is A Surgeon Responsible For The Actions Of The Team?

BIKLaw Medical Malpractice Lawyer > Medical Malpractice > Captain Of The Ship Doctrine: When Is A Surgeon Responsible For The Actions Of The Team?

doctor in maskDuring a surgery, there will be multiple people in the room. Several types of nurses and surgical assistants will be helping the primary surgeon, secondary surgeon, and anesthesiologist make sure that everything in your surgery goes smoothly.

Despite the many people in the room, the lead surgeon has a particular responsibility to ensure that everyone working on your operation performs as required. Sometimes, this duty means that a surgeon can be found legally responsible for the mistakes that a nurse or other assistant makes during the procedure.

Known as the “captain of the ship doctrine,” California law allows patients who were injured by the medical malpractice or negligence of the operating staff (like a nurse) to file a lawsuit against the lead surgeon if that surgeon was able to prevent and correct the mistake.

For example, if a nurse who is in charge of counting sponges loses track, and a sponge is left inside a patient, the surgeon may be responsible for the nurse’s negligence if the surgeon could have or should have prevented the mistake.

Normally, a surgeon is not responsible for the negligence of someone else during an operation, especially when the operating staff is not employed by the surgeon. However, the captain of the ship doctrine allows injured patients to have another source of recovery for the compensation they need after a botched surgery. Even if the person who made a mistake is not part of the operating surgeon’s normal staff, the surgeon could still be liable for that person’s negligence if the surgeon had the right to control his or her work.


Patients cannot be expected to understand and decide which people are qualified to assist their surgeon during an operation. Accordingly, the captain of the ship doctrine puts that responsibility onto the surgeon, who is more qualified to ensure that a surgery is mistake free. When mistakes happen, the surgeon has the liability because the surgeon was supposed to supervise and control the procedure.

The captain of the ship doctrine can be difficult to enforce, and it takes a skilled litigator to prove that the doctrine applies. Often, an experienced medical malpractice attorney will need to analyze what went wrong during the surgery, and determine if the surgeon is responsible.

Bradley I. Kramer is both a medical doctor and an attorney, and has the unique expertise you need on your side to fight back after an injury.  If you were injured during surgery, and believe that your surgeon was responsible, schedule a free appointment at the Trial Law Offices of Bradley I. Kramer, M.D., Esq. Our compassionate and knowledgeable team of legal and medical investigators will help you find out what went wrong, and will work to get you the compensation you need to recover from your injury.

For a free consultation about your case, fill out our online case evaluation form or call (310) 289-2600 to schedule an appointment.


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