Shoulder and neck birth injuries don’t get as much attention as brain damage and conditions like cerebral palsy. But they can cause significant and lasting disability, and in many cases, these injuries are preventable. A child born in 2011 only just received a settlement for permanent arm paralysis due to a complication known as shoulder dystocia during delivery.
Brachial Plexus Injuries
A brachial plexus injury occurs when the nerves that run from the spine, along the neck, and down the arm are stretched, torn, or severed. These injuries can occur from strong forces to the head or shoulder, in car accidents or contact sports, but they also occur during childbirth.
Certain complications, like high birth weight, breech position, or long labor, can cause a baby’s shoulders to wedge in the birth canal. This is dangerous because the baby may suffer oxygen loss. Attempting to avoid this, the medical team may use excessive force to pull the baby out and damage the nerves.
Depending on how severely the nerves are damaged in childbirth injury, a child may have mild to severe injuries: loss of sensation, poor muscle control, numbness and tingling, muscle atrophy, or paralysis. Some children will recover without treatment or with surgical interventions and physical therapy. Others have permanent disabilities.
Settlement for a Permanent Injury
Brachial plexus injuries can be mild, resulting in no lasting damage, but in this case, the child was left with permanent paralysis in the arm. The baby and mother had risk factors for shoulder dystocia, a complication in which the shoulder gets stuck in the birth canal. The mother was obese, and the child large for gestational age.
The medical team knew these facts and that they posed a risk before the mother went into labor. The doctor used a vacuum tool to assist in the delivery when she struggled to continue with labor but soon realized the shoulder was stuck. The doctor delivered the baby, but the force needed to pull it from the birth canal resulted in brachial plexus nerve damage and the resulting disability.
The lawsuit the family filed claimed medical malpractice because the doctor knew of the risks and did not get the mother’s permission to complete a vaginal birth or to use the vacuum tool. The doctor then used more force than would be considered safe to deliver the baby.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers believe that the doctor should have warned the mother of the risks. The doctor should have suggested a C-section and gotten informed consent to go ahead with vaginal delivery. The case never went to trial, and the defendants agreed to settle for $900,000.
This case is a tragic situation that highlights the dangers of medical malpractice. The child will live forever with a paralyzed arm and will need assistance with many daily tasks. Families and patients must be kept informed of risks and be allowed to make important decisions in their own care.