Dental assistant sues for burns, pregnancy loss from autoclave blowup

By Melissa Busch, DrBicuspid.com assistant editor

November 11, 2019 -- A dental assistant is suing a dental surgery practice in Texas where she worked, as well as the practice's owners and a manufacturer, after equipment that sterilizes dental instruments exploded, leaving her with serious burns, hearing loss, and a lost pregnancy.

Sara Underferth and her husband, Thomas, filed a negligence and product liability lawsuit in October 24 in Harris County District in Texas against Northeast Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery of Kingwood and owners Robert Stanton, DMD; Victor Manon, DDS; and Ermelinda Da Ponte, DDS; as well manufacturer Tuttnauer USA and Surgiquip Solutions, a company that serviced the equipment.

The couple is seeking up to $10 million, interest, legal costs, and other just relief.

The practice used a Tuttnauer EZ10 autoclave to clean its dental instruments. It was malfunctioning, so it was deemed unsafe for use and placed in a practice storage room, according to the lawsuit.

In December 2017, Underferth was working as a dental assistant at the practice when she had to enter the storage room to dispose of a blood bag in a biohazard container. While walking past the autoclave, its door exploded, discharging a large cloud of compressed steam into the direction of Underferth, the suit states.

Underferth claims the steam struck her body, leaving her with second- and third-degree burns on her arm, chest, and stomach. The trauma caused her to lose her pregnancy, and the explosion caused her permanent hearing loss that will require her to use hearing aids for the rest of her life, according to the suit.

A Surgiquip technician took the autoclave that exploded out of service but failed to disable it properly, Underferth claims. The accident could have been prevented if the technician had taken other steps, including removing the autoclave's power cord, door gasket, or door latch; disconnecting the water source; or draining the water from the device, the suit states.

Underferth alleges that the practice and its owners also could have taken the same steps or "locked out" the autoclave until a Tuttnauer-certified technician could inspect the equipment and ensure it was safe. Also, she claims that one of the defendants turned on the autoclave just a few minutes before Underferth entered the room, giving the equipment time to "pressure up" before it exploded.

In addition to the owners not taking appropriate safety precautions, the suit states that no one at the practice called an ambulance or offered to take Underferth for medical attention. She had to seek treatment on her own. She also claims that the practice did not have workers' compensation coverage to cover her injuries.

Furthermore, Underferth claims that Tuttnauer is liable because the design of the equipment was flawed, noting that the autoclave activated even when its door was not fully closed.

Her husband alleges his wife's injuries have caused a loss of household services and a loss of household consortium.


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