Is Medical Malpractice to Blame for Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy Diagnosis?

Mar 1, 2023 | Medical Malpractice

Cerebral palsy is life-changing for children and their parents. It can affect nearly all aspects of a child’s life, and it requires a lifetime of management and care. The financial costs of a cerebral palsy diagnosis can also be substantial, quickly climbing into the millions of dollars over a child’s lifetime.

These are facts we know all too well. As medical malpractice lawyers, we have witnessed the financial and non-financial costs of cerebral palsy first-hand. We have also helped families recover financial compensation for these costs—including one family in South Florida for whom we recently secured a $25.6 million arbitration award. In that case, the parent’s child suffered hemiplegic cerebral palsy and multiple other permanent neurological injuries due to mistakes during delivery. While we are pleased to have been able to help this family secure the financial resources they will need for the future, a preventable cerebral palsy diagnosis is something that no family should have to endure.

How Can Medical Mistakes Cause Cerebral Palsy?

To understand how medical mistakes can cause cerebral palsy, it helps to start with an understanding of the nature of this life-altering condition.

Understanding the Nature and Types of Cerebral Palsy

While cerebral palsy is often referred to as a neurological disorder, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain, cerebral palsy is actually “a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.” As the CDC goes on to explain, “Cerebral means having to do with the brain[while p]alsy means weakness or problems with using the muscles.”

The primary cause of cerebral palsy is abnormal brain development. While this abnormal brain development can occur naturally in some cases, it can also occur as a result of medical malpractice during pregnancy, labor, or delivery. Depending on when issues with the development of a fetus’s brain begin to arise, the effects of cerebral palsy can vary widely in terms of both their scope and severity. As a result, whether caused by medical malpractice or other factors, the effects of abnormal brain development can manifest as:

  • Spastic Cerebral Palsy – This is the most common form of cerebral palsy. With spastic cerebral palsy, a child’s muscles become stiff; as a result, their movements become awkward and difficult to control. Spastic cerebral palsy can either affect only the legs (spastic diplegia), only one side of the body (spastic hemiplegia), or the entire body (spastic quadriplegia).
  • Dyskinetic Cerebral Palsy – Dyskinetic cerebral palsy is characterized by uncontrollable movements that can make it difficult to sit, walk, talk, eat, and perform manual tasks. It can affect either just the limbs or the limbs and the face and tongue.
  • Ataxic Cerebral Palsy – Ataxic cerebral palsy affects balance and coordination. While its effects on the body differ from those of dyskinetic cerebral palsy, it can have similar consequences in children’s (and adults’) day-to-day lives.
  • Mixed Cerebral Palsy – Each of the above forms of cerebral palsy can manifest alone or in combination with one or more of the other forms. When a child is diagnosed with multiple forms, this is referred to as mixed cerebral palsy.

It is important to note that the problems that can lead to cerebral palsy can also lead to other medical complications. As a result, when a child exhibits symptoms of cerebral palsy, parents must, unfortunately, consider the very real possibility that their child could also have other neurological deficits. Some of the symptoms of cerebral palsy that can also be indicative of other neurological conditions and cognitive disorders include:

  • Developmental delays
  • Inability to control physical movements 
  • Limited coordination
  • Muscle stiffness, spasms, or tremors

The CDC notes that cerebral palsy “is typically diagnosed during the first or second year after birth. If a child’s symptoms are mild, it is sometimes difficult to make a diagnosis until the child is a few years older.” However, with cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions, early intervention can help to improve a child’s long-term prognosis. As a result, parents who have concerns about cerebral palsy should not delay in seeking a diagnosis; and, even if a child’s diagnosis comes a year or more after birth, parents should not overlook the possibility that an error during pregnancy, labor, or delivery could be to blame.

Understanding How Medical Mistakes Can Cause Cerebral Palsy

Since cerebral palsy results from abnormal brain development, medical mistakes that result in abnormal brain development can ultimately lead to a cerebral palsy diagnosis. There are several ways that medical mistakes can cause the brain to develop abnormally both in the womb and after childbirth. These include:

  • Reduced Oxygen Flow to the Brain – Oxygen is essential to the brain’s development in the womb. Reduced oxygen flow or a disruption in the flow of oxygen to a fetus’s brain is a common malpractice-related cause of cerebral palsy.
  • Bleeding in the Brain – Issues with clotting, blood vessel formation, heart defects, and various other complications can cause bleeding in a fetus’s brain. Failure to prevent or timely treat this bleeding can lead to abnormal brain development.
  • Damage to the White Matter of the Brain – The white matter in the brain is responsible for sending signals throughout the body. As noted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “[t]he white matter in the fetus’s brain is more sensitive to injury between 26 weeks and 34 weeks of pregnancy.” As a result, injuries caused by medical mistakes (or left untreated) can trigger deficits that ultimately result in a cerebral palsy diagnosis.
  • Preventable Infections – Infections such as encephalitis and meningitis can cause cerebral palsy. While these infections are preventable and treatable, prevention and treatment require quality medical care.

Common Medical Mistakes During Pregnancy, Labor, and Delivery that Can Cause Cerebral Palsy

These issues (among others) can result from a variety of forms of medical malpractice. When pursuing a medical malpractice claim for cerebral palsy, it is critical to pinpoint the specific error responsible for the diagnosis. This involves examining all potential causes with the assistance of a medical expert who specializes in assessing the quality of patients’ care and identifying medical mistakes and their consequences. With regard to cerebral palsy, some of the most common malpractice-related causes include:

Failure to Diagnose

Failure to diagnose issues that result in reduced oxygen flow, bleeding in the brain, or damage to the brain’s white matter can constitute medical malpractice. The same is true of failing to diagnose an infection that has the potential to result in cerebral palsy and/or other cognitive disorders. Diagnostic errors are the most common form of medical malpractice.

Failure to Monitor

Once an OB-GYN diagnoses a risk for cerebral palsy or even diagnoses a possible risk for cerebral palsy, he or she must adequately monitor the mother and fetus to ensure that necessary treatment can be administered promptly. Failure to monitor is a common form of medical malpractice that can (and often does) result in the development of cerebral palsy.

Failure to Treat

Failure to treat (or properly treat) risk factors for cerebral palsy can also constitute medical malpractice. All doctors have a duty to provide treatment in accordance with the prevailing standard of care, and when they fail to do so, they can—and should—be held responsible for the consequences of their mistakes.

Failure to Address Problems with the Placenta and Umbilical Cord

Problems with the placenta and umbilical cord can lead to oxygen deprivation and other issues that can ultimately lead to cerebral palsy. With modern medicine, these problems can be easily identified, and the failure to identify them will often constitute medical negligence.

Failure to Recommend or Perform a C-Section Delivery When Necessary

An emergency cesarean section (C-section) delivery will sometimes be necessary to protect a fetus against the risk of oxygen deprivation and abnormal brain development. If a doctor fails to recommend or perform a C-section delivery when necessary, this can also rise to the level of actionable medical malpractice.

Improper Delivery Procedures

Mistakes during delivery can cause cerebral palsy as well. Improper use of forceps and vacuum extractors, applying too much pressure to the fetus, and various other mistakes can cause oxygen and brain damage, ultimately leading to cerebral palsy.

Improper or Inadequate Response to Fetal Distress and Other Medical Emergencies

When a fetus shows signs of distress, prompt intervention can be critical for mitigating the risk of brain damage and other potentially serious (if not life-threatening) complications. Failure to properly and adequately respond to signs of fetal distress (or other medical emergencies) during labor and delivery can also constitute medical malpractice, and, unfortunately, these mistakes are also far too common.

Post-Delivery Medical Malpractice

Along with mistakes during pregnancy, labor, and delivery, mistakes made post-delivery can also cause a child to suffer from cerebral palsy unnecessarily. Failure to diagnose, failure to monitor, failure to treat, and a variety of other types of medical mistakes are, unfortunately, risks following delivery as well. These mistakes will also constitute medical malpractice in many cases.

What to Do if You Have Questions About the Cause of Your Child’s Cerebral Palsy

If your child has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, you are right to have questions about the cause of your child’s condition. While it shouldn’t be, medical malpractice unfortunately is a very real concern. With this in mind, if your family is coping with a recent cerebral palsy diagnosis, we recommend taking the following steps promptly:

  • Collect Your Family’s Medical Records – You should try to collect as many of your family’s medical records as you can (without going back to the doctor who you suspect may have committed medical malpractice). Starting with your (or your spouse’s or partner’s) pregnancy, create a file with all the bills, scans, test results, and other medical records you find.  
  • Take Some Notes – In addition to collecting your family’s medical records, you should also try to take some notes. Did you at any point have any concerns about the quality of care your family’s doctor provided? If so, why? When did you learn of your child’s cerebral palsy diagnosis? Did your doctor say anything about the possible causes of your child’s condition?
  • Schedule a Free Initial Consultation with a Medical Malpractice Lawyer – To find out if your family has a claim for medical malpractice, you will need to discuss your situation with an experienced local lawyer. Once you gather some information, you should schedule a free initial consultation soon.

Contact Silva & Silva for a Free Initial Consultation

If you have questions about your family’s legal rights following a cerebral palsy diagnosis, we strongly encourage you to speak with a medical malpractice lawyer at Silva & Silva. To schedule a free initial consultation at your convenience, please call 305-445-0011 or tell us how we can reach you online today.