How Brain Damage at Childbirth Becomes a Lawsuit

If a newborn suffers a brain injury during the labor or delivery process, the hospital staff could be liable in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

When a newborn suffers brain damage at birth the parents of the child and the entire family suffer a horrible and devastating loss and fear for the health and future of their infant child.  It seems almost impossible to understand how something so very unthinkable could possibly have happened to such a fragile and tiny new life.  It is important to recognize that there are essentially two causal genres for these types injuries to an infant, the first is physical brain trauma injury resulting in severe hemorrhage and the second is brain injury resulting from depravation of oxygen, called “perinatal asphyxia” or “hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.”

Bleeding in a newborn's brain, referred to as "intracranial hemorrhage," is brain birth injury caused by the rupture of a blood vessel within the skull.  Severe bleeding in the spaces around the infant’s brain results from an actual deformity of the infant’s skull occurring during a rough labor and delivery or alternatively from depravation of oxygen, referred to as "perinatal asphyxia" and also as "hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy." 

Parents and family members must seek out medical record facts to determine if a rough vaginal delivery or deprivation of oxygen during the birth process caused their child to suffer a devastating brain injury at birth, and whether or not that injury was the result of acts of medical negligence on the part of the obstetrician, attending delivery room hospital staff or improperly functioning delivery room equipment.

Hemorrhages Causing Brain Damage at Birth

Bleeding in the brain is much more common in very premature infant births. It results from inadequate blood flow to the brain (ischemia) or a diminished amount of oxygen in the blood (hypoxia).

Many, even most, infants with an injury at birth causing bleeding in the brain do not exhibit obvious symptoms. The bleeding injury can occur in several places within the child's skull and may manifest as sluggishness (lethargy), poor feeding, or even unexplained seizures.

Types of Infant Brain Hemorrhage during Birth

Subdural hemorrhages occur between the outer and the inner layers of brain’s coverings.  They are now much less common due to improved childbirth techniques. A subdural hemorrhage can put increased pressure on the surface of the brain. Newborns with subdural hemorrhages may develop seizures or high levels of bilirubin in the blood.

Subarachnoid hemorrhages occur below the innermost of the two membranes that cover the brain. They are the most common type of intracranial hemorrhage, usually occurring in full-term newborns. Newborns with subarachnoid hemorrhages may occasionally have seizures during the first few days of life but ultimately thrive.

Intraventricular hemorrhages occur into the brain's normal fluid-filled spaces or ventricles.

Intraparenchymal hemorrhages bleed into the brain tissue itself. Intraventricular and intraparenchymal hemorrhages usually occur in very premature newborns presenting with severely underdeveloped brains and are typically not the result of a birth injury.

If Parents Can Show Negligence, They Can Bring a Malpractice Lawsuit

"Medical negligence" is the fault concept that forms the basis of most medical malpractice lawsuits. It isn’t enough to show that something went wrong during labor, delivery, or c-section and the child ended up getting injured. It must be shown that the action or inaction of a medical professional (such as the midwife, nurse, or doctor) amounted to medical negligence.

That means establishing:

  1. the appropriate medical standard of care under the circumstances -- meaning the level of care and skill that a similarly-trained health care professional would have demonstrated in a similar treatment situation,
  2. how the defendant’s conduct fell short of that standard -- in other words, exactly how the care provided by the defendant was not in line with accepted medical practices, and
  3. that the defendant’s negligence caused some amount of measurable harm to the newborn child.   

So, how do you go about proving these crucial elements of a medical malpractice case?

Almost every medical malpractice case involves the testimony of an expert medical witness who has experience in the same medical field as the one practiced by the defendant. This is especially true if the case makes it all the way to trial. In fact, as a procedural requirement for filing the initial lawsuit, many states require a medical malpractice plaintiff to obtain a sworn statement in which a qualified expert medical witness declares his or her opinion that the defendant's conduct amounted to medical negligence.

For more on the legal elements, see Medical Malpractice During Childbirth: A Legal Overview.

When to See an Attorney

If you or a member of your family has a child that suffered disabling brain damage at birth as the result of medical negligence involving either a diagnostic error or a medical procedure error it is important to seek out the assistance of a medical malpractice attorney.  Only an attorney can properly evaluate and investigate the facts of the case and determine if the brain damage at birth suffered involved acts of medical negligence or professional malpractice.  An attorney can take the necessary steps to preserve and protect the legal rights of the injured child as well as his parents and extended family.

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