One of the most persistent myths about cerebral palsy is that it "just happens." While not every case of cerebral palsy is preventable, many are caused by preventable factors. Medical professionals who care for women during pregnancy and labor and delivery need to follow established standards of care in order to minimize the risk of brain damage to the baby. When they do not follow those standards, malpractice occurs - and the long-term risk to the baby is massive.
Understanding the standard of care
The law does not expect medical professionals to be perfect, but it does expect them to do their jobs competently. Specifically, doctors are required to provide the level of care that would be expected from an average doctor in the same specialty with access to the same information in a given situation.
During prenatal care: Obstetricians and other medical professionals who care for pregnant women are expected to perform standard tests and assessments to identify the risk factors for cerebral palsy, such as infections, high blood pressure and warning signs that the baby might be born prematurely. They are also required to order follow-up tests if something is wrong, advise the parents of any known risks, and conduct appropriate medical interventions when needed. For example, if there are complications indicating that it is not safe for the baby to be born vaginally, the doctor needs to inform the mother of those risks and schedule a c-section.
During labor and delivery: One of the most important things medical providers need to do during labor and delivery is monitor the baby's heart rate. A low heart rate may indicate that the baby's brain is not getting enough oxygen, which can cause brain damage and cerebral palsy if appropriate interventions are not conducted. Doctors also need to administer medications appropriately and use medical devices safely during the delivery process. For instance, forceps and vacuum extractors need to be used with care in order to avoid causing head trauma that can damage the baby's brain.
If there is a c-section: While it is understandable that doctors want to avoid subjecting patients to major surgery if possible, under certain circumstances, a prompt c-section is needed to minimize the risk of brain damage to the baby. Delaying or failing to order a c-section when it is medically necessary to operate promptly is a common cause of cerebral palsy. Surgical errors or anesthesia errors during the c-section itself can also cause injury to the baby.
After delivery: Doctors need to follow established standards of care when caring for a newborn in the first few minutes after birth. This includes conducting an Apgar test and correctly interpreting the results. It also includes checking for jaundice, both in the hospital and again within 48 hours after discharge. Untreated jaundice can cause a type of brain damage called kernicterus, which in turn can cause cerebral palsy.
Did malpractice cause your child's cerebral palsy?
Again, not every case of cerebral palsy is a result of medical malpractice, but many are. Getting to the bottom of what happened requires a thorough investigation. An attorney representing a patient needs to review medical records, take depositions and retain medical experts licensed in the same field of medicine in order to prove a claim.
Every state provides legal recourse for children who develop cerebral palsy or sustain other serious birth injuries due to medical malpractice. The laws vary widely from state to state, and different legal time limits (statute of limitations) may apply depending on the jurisdiction. That is why the best course of action is to meet with an attorney licensed in your state for a free consultation as soon as possible to identify your child's legal rights and options.