During childbirth, a baby’s shoulder can get stuck on the mother’s pelvic bone, which prevents the baby from exiting the birth canal. “Shoulder dystocia” is always an emergency requiring immediate and skilled medical attention. It occurs about two times in every 1,000 births.
Once the shoulder is caught, the doctor or midwife in attendance will try to free the baby’s shoulder, using maneuvers to adjust the position of the baby or the mother. Sometimes, the doctor will even break the baby’s collarbone or the mother’s pelvic bone, or perform an emergency cesarean section.
If a doctor is too forceful in trying to deliver the baby, especially when using forceps or vacuum delivery, the delicate nerves of the baby’s shoulder (the brachial plexus) can be compressed, stretched or torn. The result can be temporary or permanent weakness or paralysis of the baby’s arm.
Types of Injury
When the upper arm is the only part affected, the condition is called a brachial plexus injury. When it involves movement of the upper arm and rotation of the lower arm, it is called Erb’s palsy. When the hand (and sometimes the opposite eye) is involved, it is called Klumpke paralysis.
Most infants with Erb’s palsy recover on their own within a few months with therapy and regular follow-up visits. Some require costly surgery, which is usually performed between three and six months of life and brings with it additional therapy, follow-up and related costs.
Sometimes, infants are left with permanent weakness or paralysis in the affected arms, which might affect their ability to work as well as engage in leisure and sporting activities. Often, due to lack of movement, the affected arm remains smaller for the rest of the person’s life.
Standard Duty of Care
Obstetricians and midwives are trained to be attentive well in advance of delivery to certain risks that might contribute to shoulder dystocia during childbirth. These include unusually large babies, overweight mothers, diabetes during pregnancy, abnormal material pelvic structure, deliveries past the estimated due date and a long second stage of labor.
In these circumstances, the average healthcare provider would be expected to anticipate potential difficulties, convey this to the mother, and recommend the alternative of a cesarean section.
Even when there are no risk factors, doctors and midwives can be negligent if they fail to react accordingly when problems are encountered during the birth. For example, they can pull too hard on the baby’s head or be too forceful in the use of forceps or vacuum delivery.
Was It Malpractice?
When an Erb’s palsy injury is caused or contributed to by medical negligence, the victim is entitled to compensation for medical expenses, loss of income, permanent or partial disability, and pain and suffering. A lawyer who specializes in birth injury cases understands the complex medical issues behind proving such injury.
To succeed, an Erb’s palsy lawsuit must meet the same standards as any other medical malpractice lawsuit. There must be a doctor/patient relationship. The doctor must have failed to exercise a proper standard of care. The doctor’s negligence must have caused or contributed to the injury and damage.
Call a Medical Malpractice Lawyer
The issues surrounding medical malpractice lawsuits for Erb’s palsy and related childbirth injuries can be complicated. Plus, the facts in each case and the laws in each state are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. It is not legal advice. For more detailed, specific information regarding your situation, please contact a medical malpractice lawyer.