Head and Brain Injuries to Newborns & Resulting Lawsuits
Damage to the brain of a child during pregnancy or childbirth may result in the death of brain cells. This can cause permanent disabilities in severe cases, and even a child with mild to moderate brain damage may require expensive medical treatment. Sometimes brain damage results from oxygen deprivation due to pregnancy or childbirth complications. In other cases, a child may suffer brain injuries from pressure to the head as they travel through and exit the birth canal. This may occur naturally or result from errors by medical providers. A brain injury also may result from an infection, which sometimes is transmitted from the mother.
Some types of brain damage are localized, while others are widespread. Localized brain damage means that the injury affects only one part of the brain. Widespread brain damage means that the brain as a whole is affected. Oxygen deprivation and infections may be more likely to cause widespread brain damage, while physical trauma during childbirth may be more likely to cause localized brain damage. However, even localized brain damage can change a child’s life forever and impose substantial burdens on their family.
Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy
When their brain does not get adequate oxygenated blood before, during, or shortly after childbirth, a child may develop hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) as their brain cells die. HIE can cause serious harm if the brain is deprived of oxygen for a long time. Some symptoms that may indicate HIE include seizures, floppy muscles, problems with feeding, and unnaturally high or low sensitivity to environmental stimulation. Problems with the function of other organs may cause a doctor to suspect HIE, since the condition can affect organs other than the brain. Treatment may involve temporarily cooling the brain below normal body temperature.
A lack of blood flow to white tissue in the brain can cause periventricular leukomalacia (PVL). This condition can affect nerve cells around the white tissue, and children may develop problems with muscle movements and cognitive functions. Premature birth may increase the risk of PVL, which often results from brain bleeding, infections, and oxygen deprivation. One of the potential indicators of this condition is spastic diplegia, a type of spastic cerebral palsy that involves stiff, tight muscles in the legs. PVL cannot be cured, but therapies, medications, and assistive devices can improve quality of life. Surgery may help in limited situations.
In the ventricles of the brain, cerebrospinal fluid forms to protect the brain and spinal cord. This fluid also takes nutrients to the brain and removes waste. Cerebrospinal fluid is regularly absorbed into the bloodstream as fresh fluid forms in the ventricles. Hydrocephalus develops when this process does not function properly, causing an accumulation of excessive fluid and pressure on the brain. Causes of hydrocephalus include brain bleeding, tumors, infections, and a birth defect called spina bifida. A child may develop a bulge at the soft spot of their head or an enlarged head. Although hydrocephalus cannot be cured, surgeries and careful monitoring by specialists can manage the condition effectively.
Cephalohematoma and Caput Succedaneum
Pressure to the head during a difficult childbirth may cause blood vessels to burst in the tissue covering the skull, which forms a pool of blood that may press on brain tissue. This is known as a cephalohematoma, which can lead to serious complications and permanent disabilities if it is not addressed properly. Caput succedaneum similarly arises from pressure to the head during childbirth. This condition involves swelling on the scalp that creates a visible bump on the head. Like cephalohematoma, caput succedaneum usually will resolve if it receives proper medical attention. In some cases, though, failing to monitor caput succedaneum and any resulting jaundice may pose a risk of kernicterus, which involves toxic levels of a chemical compound called bilirubin. Kernicterus may cause permanent brain damage.
Intracranial Hemorrhages and Hematomas
Doctors should take signs of an intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain or under the skull) seriously. An uncontrolled hemorrhage may destroy parts of the brain that affect movement and development. While intraventricular hemorrhages involve bleeding in or between the ventricles, an intracerebral hemorrhage is a severe type of stroke. Sometimes damaged blood cells released during a hemorrhage form a clot, which is known as an intracranial hematoma. This condition is more likely to occur when a hemorrhage is limited to a certain part of the brain. Doctors may use medication to dissolve a clot or surgery to remove it.
The softer skulls of babies may be more vulnerable to skull fractures than adult skulls are. Birth trauma may cause fractures around the areas where the bone plates of the skull are held together. Some fractures may cause a serious complication in which the brain escapes from the skull through the gap created by the fracture. Children also may suffer from intracranial bleeding, seizures, and brain damage. A minor skull fracture may resolve without significant medical procedures if brain damage has not occurred. However, a doctor may recommend surgery if a fracture has caused brain damage or more widespread harm. These situations often suggest errors by a doctor when assisting childbirth.
Compensation for Head and Brain Injuries to Newborns
While some injuries or complications may be unavoidable, medical malpractice often plays a role in brain damage to children. A doctor may cause a condition through mishandling pregnancy or childbirth, or they may fail to diagnose a condition and thus allow it to worsen needlessly. In still other cases, a doctor may not monitor a condition or may provide an improper course of treatment. Any of these situations may support a medical malpractice claim against a health care provider.
In a medical malpractice lawsuit based on birth injuries, a doctor will be held liable if they failed to meet the professional standard of care. This means that they did not follow the practices that a competent, reasonable doctor in their field would have followed. A family probably will need to provide expert testimony to describe the standard of care, the behavior that violated it, and the condition from which the child suffers. A birth injury attorney can help retain appropriate experts and maneuver around the distinctive procedural obstacles in these cases. These attorneys generally do not collect fees for their services until they recover compensation for a client, after which they collect their fee as a percentage of the award.