A baby’s birth is usually a joyful event. However, sometimes something goes horribly wrong and an infant dies before birth or shortly after, as a result of a birth injury or a medical mistake. Incidents involving infant wrongful death are preventable and are most often caused by improper actions by negligent physicians, nurses, and/or poorly-administered hospitals.
What is Infant Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is a legal term applied to the death of a person caused by negligence or improper actions of another. In the case of birth injuries, infant wrongful death cases are usually held against the medical provider either for the death of the child, the death of the mother, or both. Under the eyes of the law, infant wrongful death can be considered any degree of death, including homicide.
Pediatricians, pediatric nurses, and other medical professionals do not kill babies deliberately, so this element of the law is usually irrelevant in birth injury cases. In most infant wrongful death cases, the people who file the lawsuit, usually the parents or other relatives of the infant, sue the attending physician or other medical personnel involved in the incident. Plaintiffs may also accuse the defendant of committing manslaughter, but the laws for manslaughter vary from state to state.
How are Infant Wrongful Death Cases Examined?
Infant wrongful death cases generally look at the events that transpired and identified by whether the medical staff person did everything that they were responsible for.
Sometimes a baby is born normally but has a birth injury from a difficult labor and dies from that birth injury. In this example, the physician and/or the medical staff may be held responsible for the birth injury that led to the infant’s death.
In cases of a stillborn birth, it’s important to note that physicians and/or medical staff are not always to blame. For instance, if the mother was in a car accident or any other traumatic experience that caused significant harm, leading to the infant’s death, the physician and/or medical staff is not liable. However, if the doctor and/or medical staff performed an action that led to a stillborn birth, or failed to perform medical intervention that could have prevented a stillborn birth, they may be liable for damages.
Almost all state laws that recognize stillbirth as wrongful death mandate that the infant must be viable at the time the stillborn occurred in order to prove medical negligence. Viable, in medical terms, means that infants are capable of surviving on their own outside the womb when the medical negligence happened that resulted in a stillborn birth. Viability typically starts at 24 weeks gestation. If fetal death occurs before 24 weeks gestation, wrongful death generally does not apply.
It’s also important to note that not all states recognize stillbirth as wrongful death, under the rationality that the infant is not yet a person. Although many think this law is absurd, some states still uphold this law. Your wrongful death attorney will be able to provide information on your state laws regarding stillbirth and wrongful death.
What are Some Birth Injuries that Could Result in Wrongful Death?
There are many possible birth injuries that can result in infant wrongful deaths. Most of these are often caused by negligence on the part of the obstetrician or other medical personnel involved in the incident.
The most common fatal birth injuries include:
Oxygen Deprivation (Hypoxia)
Oxygen deprivation is not only a principal cause of birth injuries such as cerebral palsy, but it can also be fatal to an infant, especially one that is still in the mother’s womb. Doctors and nurses in the delivery room need to be alert for any sign that the baby is not getting enough oxygen. Hypoxia deaths are often caused by the stresses of labor, an umbilical cord wrapped around the infant’s neck, or problems with the placenta.
In some instances, an infant can become lodged in the mother’s pelvic area, leading to oxygen deprivation. Doctors must act quickly, yet unfortunately, excessive and forceful pulling when trying to get the baby out may lead to other birth injuries.
Reduced Blood Flow
Babies need a proper amount of blood flow in order for their brains and other vital organs to receive oxygen and life-sustaining substances. If the amount of blood an infant gets during labor is restricted for a long time or stops altogether, the brain, heart, and other organs can’t function and close down.
Traumatic Injuries During Delivery
Traumatic injuries often cause infant wrong deaths, especially during a difficult delivery. Stress due to unexpected developments in a long labor, such as infant distress while the baby is still in the birth canal, can catch a doctor off guard. In an emergency situation, a physician may act negligently. An inexperienced or nervous obstetrician can make poor decisions. For a example, a negligent physician can fatally injure a baby with a forceps or vacuum extractor. In cases where the attending physician reacts hastily during an unexpectedly difficult delivery, deep lacerations or trauma to the skull can be serious enough to kill a baby.
Other birth injuries that can cause infant wrongful death include:
- Antepartum hemorrhage (APH) or bleeding during pregnancy
- Placenta previa
- Placental abruption
- Uterine rupture
- Untreated newborn jaundice
- Spinal cord damage
Examples of Infant Wrongful Death Cases
Infant wrongful death can occur before birth, during labor, and even after a baby is born. In many instances these deaths can be avoided, but they occur as a result of medical negligence and poor management decisions by a hospital. In addition, a seemingly minor clerical mistake by a pharmacist or a medical equipment operator error can have deadly consequences.
In July of 2014, a Pennsylvania couple sued a doctor, several hospitals, a transfusion institute, and a blood bank for the death of their two-month-old son. Per the Pittsburgh Trib, Christopher and Cassi Lang of Fayette County blame their son Xander’s death partly on a tainted blood transfusion. In their lawsuit, the Langs allege that Xander was given a blood transfusion which contained Cytomegalovirus while he was in Magee-Womens Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Though it is usually harmless, Cytomegalovirus can trigger complications in newborns.
Xander was in Magee’s NICU after being born prematurely in August of 2012. He received a transfusion of blood from the Institute for Transfusion Medicine, Magee-Womens’ blood bank. In their complaint, the Langs allege that the blood was not screened, tested, or treated for Cytomegalovirus. “Due to the (virus), Xander Lang’s medical condition deteriorated, ultimately causing and/or contributing to his death on October 30, 2012,” the Langs’ complaint stated.
The Langs also sued Uniontown Hospital and Dr. Febenido Pascua for failing to provide proper testing and care to Cassi Lang during her pregnancy. According to the suit, she was admitted to the Uniontown emergency room at least three times for high blood pressure and other problems. In one instance, her blood pressure was 190 over 120.
When the Langs’ obstetrician was informed about the mother’s hypertension, he ordered her to go to Uniontown’s labor and delivery department. Four hours later, Cassi was transferred to Magee, where she underwent an emergency Caesarean section.
Chicago $8.5 Million Settlement
In April of 2012, a Chicago hospital agreed to pay a record $8.25 million settlement to the parents of a baby who died after he was given a lethal dose of sodium chloride due to a pharmacy error.
Advocate Lutheran General Hospital admitted responsibility in the 2010 death of Genesis Burkett, a 40-day-old boy who was born prematurely. Genesis was in the hospital’s NICU and received a dose of sodium chloride which was over 60 times more than the amount prescribed by a physician.
Advocate Lutheran said in a statement, “This event has only heightened our focus on patient care. We have taken comprehensive steps across Advocate to ensure that this type of tragedy does not happen again.”
Genesis’ death was a result of a chain of events that happened during a routine medication delivery. The process of administration of medications in a hospital consists of various steps from prescription to delivery, and any distraction or disruption can be dangerous to a patient. In the Genesis Burkett case, a pharmacist processing the order for sodium chloride keyed in the wrong dosage into the machine that mixed the IV solution.
Medication Errors in United States Hospitals
According to the National Patient Safety Foundation, medication errors harm an estimated 1.5 million persons in the U.S. In a hospital setting, dispensing one medication to one patient can often involve 100 steps from start to finish. With a high volume of prescription orders and a myriad of random events that can interfere with the process, medication errors are among the most common causes of patient injuries and deaths in American hospitals. Most medication errors, including the one that killed Genesis Burkett, can be prevented by making sure that pharmacists check the markings on IV bags more than once before sending medications to a patient.