Cerebral palsy (CP), along with other types of palsies, is one of the more debilitating birth injuries that can occur as the result of complications during pregnancy or a difficult labor and delivery. CP has no cure and can significantly affect the quality of life of the infant into adulthood as well as the infant’s parents. While the exact cause of CP is not always known, it is sometimes a completely avoidable occurrence.
Nearly one-half of all birth injuries have been found to be potentially avoidable.
Birth injuries account for less than 2 percent of infant deaths in the U.S., and nearly one-half of all injuries have been found to be potentially avoidable. Several lawsuits filed by parents of children injured during birth have ended in awards for past and future pain and suffering, including medical expenses and lost wages, due to negligence on the part of the hospitals and their medical staff.
Why File a Birth Injury Lawsuit?
Medical malpractice litigation became much more prevalent in obstetrics in 1985, with the advent of electronic fetal monitoring, driven largely by cerebral palsy litigation. Parents of a child suffering from cerebral palsy or another birth injury may have no other avenue for recovering or acquiring costs to care for their injured child. Some newborns incurring brain damage or having cerebral palsy may require continued care even into adulthood.
Monetary Awards for Damages
Cerebral palsy and other birth injury claims are among the highest verdicts and settlements in the U.S., likely due to their sensitive nature involving the life of a child. If an award for damages is appropriate, both past and present costs and losses are typically taken into account. Pain and suffering can also be considered when deciding on a dollar amount to be awarded.
The monetary value awarded by a jury or established in a settlement negotiation due to a birth injury can be used to cover the following:
- Medical care, both outstanding and ongoing bills
- Various types of therapies
- Loss of wages, both past and future of the parent and/or the child
- Medical and/or assistive equipment
- Special educational costs
- Emotional pain and suffering
Lawsuits Filed After Birth Injuries
A birth injury is different from a birth defect in that a birth defect happens as a part of the baby’s development in the womb; whereas a birth injury happens during the birthing process or as the baby is being delivered. Some birth injuries are unavoidable and just a part of the risks associated with giving birth. But other birth injuries are due to circumstances or actions that can be prevented.
Lawsuits Filed After Birth Injuries:
Premature Birth Resulting in Cerebral Palsy
One family living in Staten Island, sued the hospital where their daughter, Stephanie Debes, who now suffers from cerebral palsy (CP), was born, and a jury awarded them $100 million in retribution. The lawsuit alleged that if the hospital had provided the family proper care in recognizing the mother’s contractions and stopping them before she went into premature labor with twins then Stephanie wouldn’t have CP.
Her twin sister was fine after being born 3 months too soon, but Stephanie was born weighing only 1 pound, 12 ounces. Stephanie, who was 17 in 2012, said in an interview at that time with the New York Post, “I watch my twin sister go out with her friends to parties and stuff. I don’t get to do as much as the average teenager.”
Prolonged Labor Resulting in Birth Injury
Another family sued the hospital where their son was delivered for $40 million for injuries he incurred following induced labor that lasted 11 hours before an emergency C-section. A trial began in January 2015, and ended with a confidential agreement being reached prior to the jury’s decision.
Maverick Ramseyer, the injured child, was 15 days overdue when his mother went in for her scheduled induction. The labor was long and when Maverick’s mother was told to start pushing, Maverick’s heart rate dropped significantly. The lawsuit alleged that the baby was in fetal distress because his head was not positioned at the cervix.
An emergency C-section was performed, and meconium (a newborn’s stool) was found in the amniotic fluid. The lawsuit further alleged that Maverick’s inhalation of the meconium was not immediately treated properly, resulting in lengthened oxygen deprivation and brain damage to the baby. Maverick was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after he turned 2.
The attorney for the Ramseyers said that two other families also sued the same hospital in separate lawsuits for similar experiences.
Improper Use of Forceps Resulting in Brain Damage
Another couple received $19.6 million in a lawsuit alleging medical malpractice that resulted in injuries to the baby and the mother. The attorney for the plaintiffs said that forceps were used for 23 minutes to assist in the delivery of the baby that was high in the birth canal. The attorney also said the doctors should have known to perform a C-section.
The baby was born with severe oxygen deprivation allegedly due to the trauma to his head from the forceps. The suit further alleged that the anesthesiologist inserted a breathing tube into the infant’s esophagus rather than his windpipe to administer oxygen. The family claimed the baby suffered brain damage as a result of the hospital’s and its physicians’ negligence.
The mother also suffered injuries, including a lacerated birth canal, which required five subsequent surgeries to repair. The lawsuit alleged that the mother had remaining scar tissue and pain as a result.
Medical Negligence Resulting in Serious Brain Injury
Lisa Ewing and her son Isaiah sued the University of Chicago Medical Center where Isaiah was born with a serious brain injury that resulted in severe cerebral palsy (CP), requiring the use of a wheelchair and assistance to meet his basic needs, such as dressing and bathing. The lawsuit alleged negligence by the hospital and its staff for failure to properly monitor the baby and his mother and to recognize a drop in the baby’s oxygen supply, among other allegations.
Attorneys for the parents claimed that the doctors’ and nurses’ failure to recognize fetal distress and act accordingly resulted in Isaiah’s subsequent brain damage. The jury agreed and awarded the family $53 million, including $28.8 million in future caretaking expenses and $7.2 million for future medical expenses.
In 2016, the Chicago Tribune reported that it was the biggest ever birth-injury verdict in Cook County.
Why Do Birth Injuries Occur?
While previous studies have attempted to link an increase in CP occurrences with an increase in the survival of preterm infants, more recent studies have confirmed that almost one-third of children with CP experienced at least one adverse event during birth that is thought to have led to their condition.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) identified six diagnoses commonly associated with CP and other birth injuries involving brain damage. These include placental abruption (placenta detachment), uterine rupture, fetal distress, birth trauma (sometimes the result of using forceps or other assistive delivery instruments), cord prolapse (umbilical cord exits cervix before baby) and birth asphyxia (lengthened interruption of the baby’s oxygen supply).
Some common causes of birth injuries that may be preventable include:
- Improper use of forceps or a vacuum to assist in the delivery of the baby
- Asphyxiation (lack of oxygen) to the baby during prolonged labor or difficult delivery
- Improper medical treatment or incorrect performance of treatment
- Failure to properly evaluate the size of the baby and other appropriate birthing conditions
- Failure to treat maternal complications and/or infections or other high-risk needs
- Failure to recognize fetal distress or other in utero complications and/or abnormalities
Forceps Delivery Led to Infant’s Death
A couple in the U.K. who had tried for five years to get pregnant lost their baby, Alexandra, three days following her birth due to an injury to her spinal cord occurring during her delivery. Alexandra’s mother, Beatrix, was induced two weeks after her due date and endured a lengthy labor, exceeding 40 hours. Alexandra was turned sideways and quite large, weighing 9 pounds, 4 ounces at her birth; but her 5 feet 2 inches tall mother was denied a Caesarean.
A junior doctor ended up using a type of forceps called Kielland’s forceps to attempt to turn Alexandra and assist her through the birthing canal. Alexandra’s head turned but her body did not, resulting in a serious spinal cord injury that was irreversible. She died at the hospital three days later with her parents knowing all along that her untimely death from her birth injury was inevitable.
Reduction in Use of Forceps
With litigation on the rise in this area, the rate at which forceps are used to assist in difficult deliveries in the U.S. has decreased, while births by C-section have increased. The decrease is mostly due to a preference for vacuum extractions or operative deliveries (Caesarean births) when an alternative to a spontaneous vaginal delivery is necessary.
Injury to the baby and the mother is more common with the use of forceps.
Injury to the baby and the mother is more common with the use of forceps. However, vacuum extractions are not possible when the fetus is face up or with preterm fetuses. Most obstetricians are now in favor of C-sections over forceps deliveries in situations where the baby needs to be rotated. And most residency training programs have eliminated the expectation of proficiency in forceps deliveries altogether.
Improper Medical Care During Delivery
Sometimes birth injuries can result due to improper standards of medical care. A jury in Georgia awarded a now 5-year-old boy, Jakob Medley, and his family $8.45 million for the hospital’s failure to provide him proper care during his delivery. According to the lawsuit, Jakob had to wait 8 minutes before receiving a much-needed breathing tube following his birth because the neonatal resuscitation team was simply “busy.”
As a result, Jakob suffers from cerebral palsy along with other developmental delays and seizures. According to the family’s attorneys, he cannot walk or talk and he is fed through a tube that goes into his stomach.
Kristin Compton is a medical writer with a background in legal studies. She has experience working in law firms as a paralegal and legal writer. She also has worked in journalism and marketing. She’s published numerous articles in a northwest Florida-based newspaper and lifestyle/entertainment magazine, as well as worked as a ghost writer on blog posts published online by a Central Florida law firm in the health law niche. As a patient herself, and an advocate, Kristin is passionate about “being a voice” for others.