In most cases, medical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, provide excellent care to their patients. However, sometimes the care provided falls below the acceptable professional standard, particularly, in cases dealing with childbirth. Childbirth injuries can result in permanent damage, and the need for lifelong medical care and custodial assistance to help the affected child or mother. When harm occurs during childbirth as a result negligent medical care, individuals may have a potential medical malpractice claim. Sometimes, this is even referred to as “Obstetrical Malpractice,” or claims arising out of the care and treatment of the mother and fetus preceding, during, and immediately after delivery.
In North Carolina, to pursue a medical malpractice claim involving obstetrical malpractice, the plaintiff must establish the following: (1) the applicable standard of care; (2) the medical provider breached that standard of care; (3) the injuries suffered were “proximately caused” by the breach; and (4) damages resulted.
In medical malpractice claims, the standard of care is the level of care an ordinary, prudent, health care professional, with the similar training and experience, would provide under similar circumstances in that geographic community. In North Carolina, a medical professional (doctor or nurse) would be required to review the pertinent care and agree to testify as to the level of care that deviated from applicable standards in the community. It follows, breaching the applicable standard of care means that the medical professional failed to provide medical treatment consistent with the community standard. The element of proximate cause means “cause without which the claimed injury would not have occurred and which a reasonably careful and prudent person could foresee would probably produce such injury.” Lumley v. Capoferi, 463 S.E.2d 264 (1995). It is up to the plaintiff or his/her attorney to establish damages; such damages can include, but are not limited to: compensatory damages for past, present, and future medical bills; lost future income or earning potential; and “non-economic” damages, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. North Carolina, however, like most states, places a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $500,000. Nevertheless, in obstetrical malpractice claims, damages may involve lifelong medical care and permanent effects on the child’s quality of life and ability to work, and/or the mother’s.
During the process of pregnancy and childbirth, there are many different aspects of medical care and treatment that may lead to a malpractice claim for both the mother and the newborn. The following are examples of obstetric, or medical malpractice injuries of this nature:
The most common complication is Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), a type of brain damage caused by limited flow of oxygenated blood. According to the World Health Organization, HIE is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide in children under five (5) years of age. HIE often occurs as the result of an oxygen-depriving event in the prenatal, intrapartum (during birth), or postnatal period. Common scenarios involve mismanaging high-risk pregnancy, uterine rupture, placental complications, umbilical cord issues, fetal monitoring errors, delayed emergency C-section, and many more. Oxygen-deprivation can also lead to other commonly associated conditions, such as, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, vision/hearing issues, and cognitive impairments.
In one particular case, a mother was awarded $1.5 million for a medical malpractice claim against a doctor employed by the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (a federal statute that permits private parties to sue the U.S. government in a federal court for torts committed by persons acting on behalf of the government). The claim came as a result of the death of the mother’s full-term infant. The mother contended that the death was caused by intrauterine asphyxia following the rupture of the mother’s uterus during delivery. The complaint alleged that the physician breached the standard of care by failing to visit the high-risk patient (mother), whose labor had been induced at the hospital, failing to learn of and evaluate her vital signs, and insert internal monitory devices. Further, the complaint alleged that had the physician seen the progressive deterioration in fetal status, evidenced by the lack of blood flow to the baby, a reasonably careful physician would have ordered an emergency C-section, thus allowing for a prompt life-saving procedure. Johnson v. United States.
In some cases, the injury does not manifest itself until sometime after the act of negligence. For example, brain damage, such as HIE, due to a birth injury may not manifest itself until years later, or the case may not be immediately traceable to a birth injury. Therefore, in North Carolina, although generally, the claim should be brought within three (3) years from the date of injury, for injuries that are not apparent right away, the claim can be filed within one year of when the injury was or should have been discovered, with no more than four (4) years passing from the date the injury was caused.
Dealing with obstetrical malpractice claims can be very difficult and complex. Aside from a medical professional’s negligence, unfortunately, injuries to the mother or child at birth occur each year without any malpractice. These circumstances occur for even natural reasons, or reasons not understood. Accordingly, medical malpractice claims require experience attorneys to work with medical professionals to review the care and provide opinions on issues such as standard of care, causation, and the resulting damages. Be that as it may, pursuing legal remedies can be incredibly important to the child, mother, and/or family, in order to help with lifelong care and other meaningful resources they may need.
One of the main issues in medical malpractice is determining the at-fault party. Usually, you will have multiple possible defendants in any case (treating physician, radiologist, specialist, nurse etc.) Determining the proper defendant is of paramount importance since failing to properly file against the right defendant could be fatal to your case. It also leaves you exposed to the empty chair defense. If you or a loved one has a medical malpractice claim involving obstetrical malpractice, contact the experienced attorneys at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC. You will speak with a lawyer who can answer all of your questions. There is no fee for an initial consultation.