Posted by Bill Sandweg on 01 May 2023.
An Iowa jury awarded nearly $100 million in damages to the parents of a child catastrophically injured during childbirth and to the child himself. As is often the case in these verdicts, almost half of the money was to pay for future medical and custodial care for the child, who is and will be unable to care for himself. The rest was awarded to the child and his parents for the general damages, pain and suffering, and loss of future earnings resulting from the botched birth.
The laboring mother came to the hospital to deliver her baby boy. When the mom was hooked up to the fetal heart monitor, the tracings showed that the baby might already be in trouble. Fetal heart monitors show the contractions of the mother’s uterus and the baby’s heart beat as he or she reacts to the contractions. There are certain patterns of fetal heartbeat that are recognized as showing the baby is running out of the reserves of oxygen and energy necessary to successfully survive the labor and the trip down the birth canal. When these patterns appear, the nurses and doctors are required to recognize them and to understand that the baby needs close observation as he or she may need to be delivered by an emergency caesarean section.
The obstetrician who was to deliver the baby didn’t recognize that there might need to be an emergency intervention soon and went off to deliver two other babies. She left the mom in the care of the nurses, who are trained in the care and monitoring of laboring mothers. By the time the obstetrician returned, the baby boy’s heart rate was extremely low. The baby’s heart rate only slows like that after there has been prolonged lack of oxygen to the brain. The nurses, who should have called for a doctor to come to the labor room when the baby’s fetal heart pattern deteriorated, had been asleep at the switch. The obstetrician returned to find them trying to deliver the baby vaginally.
By this time, it was too late to perform a caesarean section. The obstetrician tried to get the baby out of the womb by using forceps and by attempting a vacuum extraction. Although she successfully got the baby out, during the process she fractured the baby’s skull and caused extensive bleeding in the brain. Furthermore, before she could get the baby out and resuscitated, he had suffered permanent brain damage due to lack of oxygen, a condition called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.
The jury divided the fault 50-50 between the hospital, which was legally responsible for the conduct of the nurses, and the obstetrician and her group.
People hear of large verdicts like this and assume the little boy will be cared for now for life. As is almost always the case, however, the verdict tells only a portion of the story. In this case, prior to trial, the hospital and the parents had agreed to cap the hospital’s liability at $7 million. The agreement was that, no matter how much the jury awarded against the hospital, it would only have to pay $7 million. The obstetrician and her group did not have enough insurance to cover their share of the nearly $100 million dollar verdict and have declared bankruptcy. There is also an argument between the obstetrician’s group and its malpractice insurer about how to respond to the judgment and whether the insurance company breached its obligations to the group. It is an open question how much of the jury verdict the little boy and his family will ever see.
Birth injury cases are always complicated. Lots can go wrong during childbirth, even when the doctors and nurses are doing the best job possible. It is usually very difficult, however, for parents to know if the doctors and nurses did the best job possible or were, as in the case here, asleep at the switch. If your child was seriously injured during or immediately after the process of childbirth, give us a chance to look at the medical records and see if we can answer your questions about how something like this could happen to your baby.