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What Are Common Mistakes Doctors Make in Birth Injury Cases?

Written by Berkowitz

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Many different types of medical mistakes can cause a birth injury including inadequate fetal monitoring, communication breakdowns, misdiagnosis, medication errors, failure to perform a C-section when necessary, and other errors. In many cases, it is possible to determine the type of medical error that was committed by examining the nature of the injury.

Types of Birth Injuries

The birthing process can give rise to a myriad of possible injuries. Some types of injuries, however, are far more common than others. The following are some examples of birth injuries:

  • Bleeding below the scalp
  • Bruising
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Clavicle fractures
  • Cranial nerve damage
  • Erb’s Palsy (a type of nerve damage)
  • Excessive bleeding (including by the mother)
  • Facial paralysis
  • Hypoxia
  • Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy (brain damage caused by lack of oxygen)
  • Infections
  • Intracranial bleeding
  • Kernicterus (a form of brain damage)
  • Meconium aspiration
  • Skin irritation
  • Paralysis
  • Skull fractures
  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Spasticity
  • Spinal cord damage
  • Stillbirth (the baby is born dead)

Any of these conditions could indicate medical malpractice, even though none of them necessarily do. If you or your baby is suffering from an abnormality, it is best to seek a second opinion. Because if your doctor committed malpractice, he may be reluctant to provide you with the information you need to formulate a medical malpractice claim against him.

Common Medical Errors

It is easy to write off a birth injury as a congenital defect, and some doctors will be more than happy to have you believe this rather than face a medical malpractice lawsuit. That is why it is important that you develop the ability to recognize signs that might (but don’t necessarily) indicate the occurrence of a malpractice-related birth injury.

The following are five of the most common medical errors that result in birth injuries. It is likely that your baby’s birth injury, if caused by medical malpractice, is traceable to one of the below-described errors.

Failure to provide proper fetal monitoring during prenatal care

A fetus must be carefully monitored throughout pregnancy and especially during the birthing process. In the delivery room, it is imperative that the doctor use a fetal heart monitor to make sure the baby is not under any distress. If signs of distress appear, the baby’s life or health may depend on an immediate and appropriate response. Some of the telltale signs of this kind of medical malpractice include cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy

Signs that may indicate fetal distress during pregnancy (which should alert the doctor to take greater care during delivery) include:

  • Decreased fetal movement (no kicking, for example);
  • Unusually high or low volume of amniotic fluid;
  • Vaginal bleeding (from the mother);
  • Cramping (in the mother); and
  • Too little or too much weight gain (in the mother).

Communication breakdowns among medical staff

A birth injury caused by a simple communication breakdown is particularly tragic because it is so avoidable. Even if one staff member notices a problem, it might not be responded to in time if it is not successfully communicated to other staff members. This scenario is common enough to be frightening to those who are aware of its frequency. Shift changes are a particularly vulnerable time.

Misdiagnosis and slow decision-making

The birth of a child can turn from a routine procedure into a life or death emergency in the space of an instant.

  • A baby that is deprived of oxygen for even a couple of minutes, for example, can suffer lifelong harm or even die. Failure to promptly restore oxygen supply can result in hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), which can, in turn, cause other lifelong disabilities. The doctor may need to administer oxygen or fluids, medicate the mother, or change her body position.
  • Similar risks are involved when the doctor is slow to evaluate a situation in which an immediate C-section is called for.

Prescribing the wrong medication or dosage

Medication errors can lead to serious injuries or even death, and the danger is just as real for the mother as it is for the baby. The following are some examples of potential medication errors:

  • Certain drugs such as Pitocin or Cytotec, for example, are commonly administered by doctors to induce labor. In some cases, however, these drugs can result in oxygen deprivation to the baby. They can also cause a rupture of the uterus, an extremely dangerous condition that can threaten the life of both the mother and the baby.
  • Spinal epidurals and spinal blocks, two forms of regional anesthesia commonly administered during childbirth, come with a host of associated risks. Epidurals, for example, sometimes interfere with labor – prompting the doctor to resort to delivery instruments such as forceps, which often, themselves, cause birth injuries. Some such injuries, such as brain bleed, can cause lifelong impairment.

Failure to properly respond to high-risk pregnancies

Some pregnancies are higher risk than others due to the mother’s condition, and this needs to be taken into account in treatment decisions taken before, during, and after birth. Risk factors include:

  • The mother suffers from diabetes, including gestational diabetes (caused by pregnancy);
  • The mother suffers from high blood pressure;
  • The mother suffers from obesity;
  • The mother is over 35; and
  • The mother is carrying twins, triplets, etc.

Under circumstances such as these, extra monitoring and care will be required during the pregnancy, during the birthing process, and during postnatal care. Extensive prenatal testing is often called for, and it may be necessary to refer the mother to a specialist.  Failure to recognize or take into account special risk factors can be a form of medical negligence.

Injuries to the Mother

Babies are not the only ones who suffer birth injuries. In some cases, mothers are injured and even killed by medical negligence during the birth or by negligent prenatal care. The most common reasons for injury to the mother include:

  • Failure to prevent or control bleeding;
  • Failure to prevent or control perineal tearing (tearing of the skin during delivery);
  • Failure to diagnose and treat preeclampsia (an often fatal condition that is characterized by high blood pressure caused by pregnancy);
  • Failure to diagnose and treat gestational diabetes in the mother; and
  • Failure to diagnose pregnancy-related maternal infections, such as group B strep, toxoplasmosis, and chickenpox, especially when these diseases are passed on to the baby.

How Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Work

To win a medical malpractice lawsuit or settlement, you must prove that the doctor committed an error in treating you, that the magnitude of the error was sufficient to constitute medical malpractice, that the error actually caused the harm suffered by your baby (or by you), and that you actually incurred or are expected to incur the amount of damage you are claiming.

If you are claiming against the doctor, it is relatively easy to prove that the doctor is the appropriate defendant – simply prove that a doctor-patient relationship existed between you and the doctor. Normally this is a matter of course, although it might become an issue if, for example, you went into unexpected labor outside of a hospital and the doctor rendered first aid as a mere bystander.

You might also be able to claim against hospital staff if, say, the staff member failed to conduct maintenance on fetal monitoring equipment and this failure led to harm you or your baby suffered. You might also be able to sue the hospital as well if the person who harmed you was an employee of the hospital (doctors typically are not considered employees, however). In some cases, you might even be able to sue the manufacturer of defective medical equipment.

Wrongful Death Lawsuits

If your baby died due to medical malpractice, a wrongful death claim will arise. You will have to petition a court to have someone appointed the executor of your baby’s probate estate, even though your baby owned no property. Whoever is appointed (and the baby’s mother is likely to be the court’s first choice) will be entitled to file a lawsuit. Damages can be extensive.

If the baby died while still in your womb, although you can certainly file a claim for the harm you suffered thereby, it remains an open question of Connecticut law whether a claim can be filed on behalf of the fetus. This is because Connecticut courts have yet to decide whether or not a fetus can be treated as a person for the purpose of filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Illustrative Example

Diane’s baby shows signs of fetal distress during the birthing process. Although the doctor correctly determines that the baby is in distress and performs a C-section, the baby suffers brain damage and a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed against the doctor for failing to order a C-section earlier in the birthing process.

A medical expert testifies that a competent doctor would have performed a C-section ten minutes earlier than the one that was actually performed, and that this 10-minute delay was what caused the baby’s brain damage. A medical witness called by the defense disagrees and says that the doctor’s decision was reasonable under the circumstances despite its unfortunate results. It will be up to the jury to decide which expert to believe.

Settlement vs Trial

Most personal injury lawsuits are resolved through private settlement rather than trial. While this is true for medical malpractice claims as well, it is also true that doctors can be stubborn about responding to medical malpractice claims, because they consider them mortal threats against their reputation. Consequently, medical malpractice lawsuits are less likely to be settled than other types of personal injury lawsuits. The settlement rate, however, is still above 50 percent.

Don’t Delay – Contact Berkowitz Hanna Today

We’ve come a long way. For the vast majority of human history, more newborn babies died than lived, and this state of affairs continued until shortly before 1800. Today, the infant mortality rate in the US stands below one-half of one percent, and the incidence of non-fatal birth injuries has seen a similar decline. Be that as it may, it is absolutely no reason why you should remain passive when medical negligence has turned you or your child into one of the unlucky few.


If you or your child has suffered a birth injury that you believe may have been caused by medical malpractice, call Berkowitz Hanna today or contact us online for a free initial consultation. We serve clients throughout Connecticut from our offices in Stamford, Bridgeport, Danbury, and Shelton.