After two weeks of testimony, a medical malpractice jury in Arkansas awarded $46.5 million to a toddler whose family alleged that her doctors’ negligence resulted in catastrophic and irreversible brain damage. The family alleged that the doctors failed to properly manage and treat the newborn baby’s jaundice following birth which led to the development of kernicterus in the child’s brain. Kernicterus is a rare brain damage that occurs in a newborn experiencing severe jaundice. It can be prevented by treating jaundice early.
Jaundice is a yellow discoloration in a newborn baby’s skin and eyes. The condition results from an excess amount of bilirubin, a yellow-colored pigment of red blood cells, in the blood. A high bilirubin level associated with severe infant jaundice or inadequately treated jaundice can result in brain damage, as it did in this case. According to the family’s medical malpractice lawyers, the infant’s initial blood test demonstrated elevated levels of bilirubin, but no follow up blood testing was done and no phototherapy lights to treat the jaundice were administered. The reason, the lawyers say, is because the child’s bilirubin levels, which were tested at 2 hours after birth, were compared against those which are normal for a two-day old child. Death or brain damage caused by the failure to treat high levels of bilirubin in newborns is considered a “never event” in the healthcare industry, meaning it should never happen because it is identifiable, preventable and serious.
As a result of the brain damage suffered by the child, she is “locked into a body that won’t work” as she will not be able to walk, talk, feed herself, or care for herself independently, though she has normal cognitive function.