Cerebral Palsy and Medical Malpractice

The connection between cerebral palsy and medical malpractice is well-known. Although most cerebral palsy is not caused by medical malpractice, many children have cerebral palsy — particularly spastic quadriplegic or dyskinetic cerebral palsy — as the result of a mistake by the hospital and doctors that treated the mother during labor. Each year, thousands of newborns are injured by mismanagement of the pregnancy or negligence in during delivery when the baby is deprived of oxygen or when their hypoxia and acidosis are left untreated.

Some of the most common forms of medical malpractice that lead to infant brain damage and cerebral palsy are:

  • before delivery, failing to recognize transfusion problems with the placenta or umbilical cord, like placenta previa or a prolapsed cord
  • during labor, failing to recognize the baby is showing signs of trouble during labor, often in the form of a slowing heart rate (i.e., fetal bradycardia, decelerations, or the absence of fetal heart rate variability)
  • during labor, suspecting the baby will have trouble, but not ordering an emergency c-section soon enough
  • in the delivery, leaving the child in the birth canal when the baby is stuck as a result of shoulder dystocia or an unusual birth position
  • in the delivery, improperly using vacuum extraction or forceps during delivery
  • after the child is born, failing to diagnose and to treat seizures
  • after the child is born, leaving jaundice or meningitis untreated

Some of the most common signs that may indicate to a mother or father that their child’s cerebral palsy was caused by medical malpractice are:

  • the baby was delivered through an emergency caesarian section
  • the baby was transferred to the intensive care nursery (ICN) or neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)
  • the baby required CPR, oxygen support, or mechanical ventilation after birth
  • the baby experienced seizures or was diagnosed with brain damage such as an intraventricular hemorrhage within the first week of life.

The science behind birth malpractice lawsuits is clear. The connection between hypoxia and neurological injury has been known for forty years, and ways of reducing injury have been known for thirty-five years. Nonetheless, as a research paper in 2010 noted, “Perinatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) occurs in one to three per 1000 live full-term births,” with nearly half of all affected newborns suffering complications ranging from death to “severe and permanent neuropsychological sequelae, including mental retardation, visual motor or visual perceptive dysfunction, increased hyperactivity, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy.”

Yet, malpractice lawsuits against obstetricians and hospitals alleging that cerebral palsy was caused by a delivery delay are inherently challenging because cerebral palsy has many causes and can caused by something other than malpractice, such as an intrapartum stroke. Given the extraordinary damage caused, and thus the amount of money at stake, there is no shortage of physicians who will accept payments from medical negligence insurance companies in exchange for unfounded and unscientific “expert” testimony that every single case of cerebral palsy has been caused by something other than delivery malpractice, despite the science, and even though the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has admitted that hypoxia can cause neurological damage like cerebral palsy.

Our lawyers are intimately familiar with obstetrics, and what fetal heart rates should indicate a problem, how shoulder dystocia should be managed when a baby gets stuck, when an emergency c-section should be ordered for fetal distress, when cerebral palsy was avoidable, and why babies are referred to head cooling for hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy or to extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for meconium aspiration. We’ve worked with the country’s leading expert obstetricians, neonatologists, placental pathologists, and pediatric neurologists. We know when cerebral palsy lawsuits have merit — when it’s worth it for a family to go through the long and challenging prospect of bringing a lawsuit — and how to win them.

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