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Can Medical Negligence Cause Cerebral Palsy?

Articles & Publications

February 22, 2023

The short answer is yes, medical negligence can cause cerebral palsy, and, when that happens, the law allows victims to hold negligent healthcare providers accountable.

Cerebral palsy (“C.P.”) is a group of permanent movement disorders that appear in early childhood. It is caused by damage to the immature brain as it develops, most often before or during birth. Symptoms vary from person to person and can range from mild coordination problems to severe impairments that require lifelong care. Some people with cerebral palsy may also have difficulties with vision, hearing, speaking, learning, and cognitive skills. The effects of C.P. can be life-changing for both those affected and their families. Unfortunately, we now know that medical negligence can play a role in causing cerebral palsy, and healthcare providers are being held legally and financially accountable when it does.

If your child has cerebral palsy and you suspect that it may have been caused by medical negligence, it is advisable to contact a lawyer who has experience handling birth injury cases, like the birth injury attorneys at Morris James, as soon as possible.

What causes cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is generally caused by a disruption in brain development before or shortly after birth. The most common cause of C.P. is an interruption of blood flow to the baby during childbirth, which can result in oxygen deprivation and damage to the developing brain. Other causes include premature birth, infections like meningitis or encephalitis, genetic factors, head trauma, and exposure to environmental toxins while in the womb. In some cases, these are the result of errors by the healthcare provider during labor and delivery, or they could have been avoided by proper monitoring and prenatal care.

What is medical negligence?

Medical negligence is a term used to describe when a healthcare provider causes harm to a patient by failing to provide treatment that meets the standard of care. In other words, the healthcare provider did not act as a reasonably competent professional in his or her field would have under similar circumstances. It can include errors in diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and pre-or post-natal care. In some cases, medical negligence may be an isolated incident, but there are also cases where it is part of a pattern of misconduct by the medical professional or health system. Medical negligence can lead to physical discomfort, pain, disfigurement, and mental trauma for patients, as well as financial hardship due to additional medical bills and lost wages from time off work. A victim of medical negligence is entitled to compensation for these expenses, losses, and suffering.

How can medical negligence cause cerebral palsy?

Medical negligence is a major cause of cerebral palsy, though it can happen in many different ways, including actions leading to oxygen deprivation, head trauma, or mismanaged infection. If a healthcare provider’s actions, or failure to act, during a pregnancy or childbirth result in cerebral palsy or another birth injury, they may be held legally and financially responsible for those harms.

Many C.P. cases are the result of oxygen deprivation, which can happen when healthcare providers are negligent in their care of a mother or baby during pregnancy, childbirth, and even shortly after birth. During pregnancy, oxygen deprivation can occur due to placental issues, gestational diabetes, or high blood pressure in the mother. It is important for a pregnant mother’s healthcare provider to monitor the mother and baby properly throughout pregnancy for risk factors, to conduct recommended testing, and to put in place proper treatment plans when indicated. Proper prenatal care and monitoring can also reveal risk factors for a complicated delivery, such as breech positioning or fetal macrosomia (a baby who is larger than average). If a medical professional does not identify such risk factors and take appropriate actions, such as an induction or a cesarean section delivery, to minimize the risks of harm to the child, the baby may be at risk of head trauma or oxygen deprivation, which can lead to cerebral palsy.

A pregnant mother should be monitored during pregnancy for bacterial and viral infections that can transfer to the developing baby and that can cause brain damage and cerebral palsy. Meningitis and encephalitis are two serious illnesses that can cause inflammation of the brain, which in turn can lead to a variety of medical issues, including cerebral palsy. Other dangerous infections include cytomegalovirus (C.M.V.), rubella, and toxoplasmosis. When maternal infections occur during pregnancy, they increase the risk of cerebral palsy caused directly by the infection, and also increase the risk of premature birth which is linked with higher rates of brain damage in newborn babies. Medical professionals who do not monitor pregnant women properly throughout their pregnancy in order to identify any potential warning signs and enact proper treatment plans may be liable for medical negligence.

In childbirth, oxygen deprivation leading to cerebral palsy can happen as a result of umbilical cord compression or prolapse (when the umbilical cord falls into the vagina ahead of the baby), if the baby gets stuck in the birth canal during labor, if a mother’s water breaks too early, or if labor and delivery take too long. The delivery team can also be negligent for its failure to monitor a baby’s fetal heart rate and other vital signs during labor properly. Changes in the fetal heart rate or vital signs can indicate the need for urgent medical intervention, such as an emergency c-section, to avoid harm to the baby. If a physician, midwife, nurse, or other medical professional does not monitor a mother and baby and handle complications appropriately, they may be liable for any harm caused, such as cerebral palsy.

If a baby suffers head or brain injuries in childbirth, it can lead to cerebral palsy or other brain damage or developmental problems. Head trauma can happen if a baby’s head suffers excessive force from pressure in the birth canal, or by the use of forceps or vacuum extraction to deliver a baby. If the doctor or other medical professional did not use the forceps or vacuum extractor properly, or if other actions should have been undertaken to avoid harm to the baby (such as proper monitoring and delivery by c-section instead of vaginally), the healthcare provider may be responsible for the baby’s injuries.

Immediately after birth, newborn babies should be evaluated for jaundice, neurologic function, and other health problems. If a baby has jaundice which goes undiagnosed or untreated, it can lead to serious brain damage affecting movement and hearing, including cerebral palsy.

What should you do if your child has cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence?

Always tend to your and your child’s immediate health needs first. If you are concerned that your child has a birth injury, such as cerebral palsy, consult a pediatrician. To diagnose cerebral palsy, your child may need to see a pediatric neurologist, and your pediatrician should be able to advise you on this. Cerebral palsy can be difficult to identify, but some of the symptoms that you can watch out for are:

  • Excessive stiffness or floppiness
  • Arched back when held or crying
  • Lagging head when picked up
  • Hand held in a fist
  • Dragging one side when crawling
  • Failure to meet developmental milestones

If you notice these symptoms, or something else that concerns you, tell your pediatrician.

If you suspect medical negligence, you should also contact a birth injury lawyer without delay. You may be entitled to compensation for medical expenses, nursing care, home modifications, lost wages, physical discomfort, and mental trauma from the healthcare providers that have caused your child’s cerebral palsy, but there are time limits on when you can file a legal claim. Typically, you have two years from the date of the injury to file a claim, but this may be different depending on when your child is diagnosed and other technical factors. That is why it is crucial to talk to an experienced birth injury lawyer as soon as possible to ensure that you do not lose your right to bring a legal claim against the people who have harmed your child. You can find more details about the types of expenses and damage that are covered by compensation in our blog article, Compensation Available in Birth Injury Cases.

The birth injury lawyers at Morris James can advise you further on the deadlines, types of compensation, and other important issues in your individual case. We have helped clients in numerous birth injury cases, including families who are dealing with the devastation of a cerebral palsy diagnosis. We understand the care and expense that comes with cerebral palsy, we know how difficult it is to get answers from healthcare providers and systems, and we have the skills and experience to get the maximum compensation for your child. 

At Morris James, our attorneys have been standing up for victims since we opened our doors in 1932. If you have questions about cerebral palsy, you may find answers in our Cerebral Palsy FAQs, or you can contact us online or call us at 302.888.6857 to learn more.

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