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Fetal Distress – Malpractice

A Seattle hospital must pay the family of a girl about $4.25 million after the hospital’s negligence during her delivery caused severe brain damage. Approximately $2.5 million of the money is to cover future medical expenses for the 5-year-old girl who cannot walk or talk, must be fed through a gastric tube and suffers from cerebral palsy. About $350,000 is meant to cover previous medical expenses, and the remaining $1.4 million covers general damages. After three days of deliberation, the jury ruled in partial favor of the hospital, rejecting an additional $3.75 million for the girl and about $4 million for her parents.

The family blamed the hospital for at least 20 minutes of oxygen deprivation to the girl after the placenta prematurely separated from the mother’s uterine wall. At 8:25 p.m. on May 30, 2003, the mother checked into the hospital with contractions; it was a day before her scheduled C-section. The woman had a history of placental abruption – a serious complication that can deprive the baby of oxygen and cause heavy bleeding in the mother – but the obstetrician went home for dinner without having been notified of the high-risk case. When the fetal monitor began to show signs the baby was in distress – around 8:45 p.m. – the nurses did not immediately call the obstetrician. At 9 p.m., the baby was “down,” meaning her heart rate had dipped below 90 beats per minute. A normal heart rate in a baby is between 130 and 190 beats per minute. Nurses called the obstetrician, who arrived at 9:18 p.m. and immediately performed an emergency C-section, he said. The child was born lifeless at 9:24 p.m. after suffering at least 20 minutes of asphyxiation but was resuscitated. A copy of an article regarding the case can be found here.

I’ve successfully handled a number of medical malpractice cases involving fetal distress causing injury and, as I have repeatedly said, they are always the most upsetting cases because they can be prevented in certain circumstances. Doctors have known for decades that when a fetus is observed to be in distress, there is only a very limited time to get the child out. In certain situations, like when a fetus’ heart rate drops dangerously law, the standard of care is to get the child out within 20 minutes. In this case, waiting to call the obstetrician was inexcusable.