Mortality and morbidity occur commonly following emergency laparotomy, and incur a considerable clinical and financial healthcare burden. Limited data have been published describing the postoperative course and temporal pattern of complications after emergency laparotomy. We undertook a retrospective, observational, multicentre study of complications in 1139 patients after emergency laparotomy. A major complication occurred in 537/1139 (47%) of all patients within 30 days of surgery. Unadjusted 30-day mortality was 20.2% and 1-year mortality was 34%. One hundred and thirty-seven of 230 (60%) deaths occurred between 72 h and 30 days after surgery; all of these patients had complications, indicating that there is a prolonged period with a high frequency of complications and mortality after emergency laparotomy. We conclude that peri-operative, enhanced recovery care bundles for preventing complications should extend their focus on continuous complication detection and rescue beyond the first few postoperative days.