Childbirth is one of life’s most beautiful events. We commonly hear people refer to the process in religious terms, calling it a “miracle,” which is how it often seems to new parents. But childbirth is an odd sort of miracle, because it is also fraught with risks. One Ontario judge has referred to it as a “very traumatic event.”
One risk that many women and their children confront in childbirth is the risk of shoulder dystocia. Shoulder dystocia itself is not necessarily all that harmful: If the attending physician understands how to manage it when it presents, it may not cause any lasting damage to mother or child.
But if the doctor is unprepared, or otherwise doesn’t manage shoulder dystocia appropriately, it poses risks of serious and lasting harm to newborns and their mothers alike. In the worst cases, it can cause serious brain damage or even death.
When a birth injury like those associated with shoulder dystocia occurs, Ontario law provides a remedy through a medical malpractice lawsuit. By filing a lawsuit, the injured child or mother can receive compensation for injuries caused by the medical negligence of the doctor attending the delivery.
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What is Shoulder Dystocia?
Shoulder dystocia occurs when an infant’s shoulder gets caught on his or her mother’s pelvis, preventing the baby from exiting the birth canal. Shoulder dystocia is a particularly dangerous condition and can lead to catastrophic birth injuries. If not managed properly, it can result in the death of the baby or life-long impairments, including:
- Brachial plexus injuries;
- Erb’s palsy (caused by damage to the nerves of the upper arm);
- Klumpke’s palsy (caused by damage to the nerves of the lower arm);
- Fractures of the bones in the shoulder, such as the humerus or clavicle; and
- Suffocation, which can lead to brain damage or death
It can also cause serious injury to the mother, such as postpartum hemorrhaging or tearing of the cervix, rectum, or vagina.
Given these serious complications of shoulder dystocia, doctors and other medical personnel must be on the lookout for the warning signs of the condition.
What are the Warning Signs of Shoulder Dystocia?
Shoulder dystocia can occur without warning, but is more likely in pregnancies involving one of several risk factors, including:
- The mother has gestational diabetes (diabetes associated with the pregnancy).
- The mother is obese.
- The mother experienced shoulder dystocia in a prior pregnancy.
- The mother gains more than 35 lbs. during the pregnancy.
- The mother has a small stature.
- The baby weighs 4,000g or more at birth (macrosomia).
However, shoulder dystocia can occur in a birth regardless of whether any of the above risk factors are present. And, just because one or more of these risk factors exists doesn’t guarantee that there will be any complications with the pregnancy. As a result, doctors and nurses must understand how to manage shoulder dystocia in any delivery.
How to Prove Shoulder Dystocia Claims
Shoulder dystocia claims in Ontario are medical malpractice claims. To prevail on a medical malpractice claim, an injured plaintiff must prove that his or her doctor or other healthcare professional breached the applicable standard of care and that the doctor’s breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
For example, in a shoulder dystocia claim, the plaintiff may need to prove that:
- The doctor was negligent in failing to recognize the warning signs of shoulder dystocia and prepare accordingly;
- The doctor failed to warn the mother of a substantial risk of injury resulting from shoulder dystocia and recommend a C-section to avoid the risk; or
- When shoulder dystocia occurred, the doctor was unprepared and failed to manage it appropriately.
Ontario courts have said the “essential element” of a medical malpractice claim is the issue of whether the doctor breached the applicable standard of care. The standard of care in a medical malpractice lawsuit in Ontario can be summarized as the use of a reasonable degree of skill, knowledge, and care, but it varies depending on the doctor’s specialty.
For example, an OB/GYN will be held to a higher standard in managing childbirth than a family doctor, because of the OB/GYN’s greater education and specialization in that process.
The variations in the standard of care mean that in medical malpractice cases what that standard is must generally be established through expert testimony. The expert will know what constitutes a reasonable degree of skill, knowledge, and care under the circumstances, and can comment on whether the defendant doctor’s conduct breached that standard.
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Ontario Medical Malpractice Lawyers
As we’ve discussed in the past, medical malpractice cases are among the most complicated in Ontario—and the rules surrounding the applicable standard of care in such cases are one of the main reasons for that complexity.
But medical malpractice cases are also complicated because humans and our health care are complicated. Even when shoulder dystocia occurs, it does not always lead to the kinds of catastrophic injuries we outlined above.
Whatever the extent of injury in a shoulder dystocia case, however, a lawsuit should only be attempted with the guidance of an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. A lawyer can help you understand what your legal rights are following a birth injury, gather the documentary and expert evidence needed to prove your claim, and present that evidence in a persuasive manner to obtain a settlement or favorable judgment.
If you believe that your or your child’s birth injuries resulted from a doctor’s negligence, contact the Toronto medical malpractice lawyers of Preszler Law Firm today for a free consultation.