Posted On January 31, 2023

What Is a Catastrophic Birth Injury?

A catastrophic birth injury can result in life-threatening conditions, permanent injuries, deformities, and disabilities in a child. These types of birth injuries usually occur during childbirth and are often caused by medical negligence of attending medical professionals.

What Are Catastrophic Birth Injuries?

Birth injuries can occur before, during, and after childbirth. While some injuries are minor and do not require treatment or pose serious health risks to the infant, others can have severe, life-long health consequences for the child. In some cases, the child may even die from his/her injuries. These types of injuries are referred to as catastrophic birth injuries and are often linked to medical errors or negligent actions of a medical professional or hospital during childbirth.

In the United States, approximately one in every 33 infants is born with some type of birth injury. The majority of these injuries are minor and heal quickly without medical treatment. Sadly, some do not ever heal and result in some type of catastrophic birth injury for the infant. Some of the most common catastrophic injuries include:

  • Brachial Plexus injury or Palsy
  • Brain damage
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Neuro-cognitive disorders
  • Seizure disorders
  • Vision and/or hearing loss

The list of catastrophic birth injuries is long. In addition to the most common ones listed above, other types of catastrophic birth injuries include: Amputation of limbs or body parts; Coma; Paraplegia, quadriplegia, partial paralysis; Sepsis; Vegetative state; and Infant death.

Whether the catastrophic injury occurs before, during, or after childbirth, the injury may not be discovered right away. In some cases, many catastrophic birth injuries do not show up for months or even years. Some are noticed by parents when the child enters preschool or elementary school and learning difficulties show up.

There are early signs of birth injuries that should be noted by doctors who deliver babies, the labor and delivery staff, and parents. Early signs of birth injuries may include:

  • Abrasions, bruises, or swelling on the infant’s face or head
  • Delayed first breath or the requirement of CPR or a breathing tube after delivery
  • Body limpness and loss of normal movements
  • Stiffness and/or seizures during the early hours after childbirth

Typically, newborns are closely monitored by doctors and nurses following delivery and during the mom’s hospital stay. However, parents should be diligent in watching out for problems after returning home. If you are a new parent and your newborn exhibits any of the above signs after childbirth, your doctor should be notified immediately. Early treatment can minimize the damage caused to an infant by some types of birth injuries.

Common Causes of Catastrophic Birth Injuries

The vast majority of birth injuries result from a natural birth complication during delivery. However, if the doctor fails to recognize the complication and treat the problem in a timely manner, or provides incorrect or inadequate treatment, the hospital and/or the attending doctor may be held liable for the infant’s injuries. The most common birth injuries that result in catastrophic birth injuries include:

Abnormal Presentation

During delivery, if a baby does not move into the head first position or is in a breach position presenting buttocks first, the chances for a birth injury to occur are increased. Weeks before the delivery due date, the fetus should drop lower in the uterus, usually with the head down. This way, the smallest part of the baby’s head enters the birth canal. Abnormal presentation increases the baby’s risk for oxygen deprivation and a prolapsed umbilical cord. It also increases the mother’s risk of a ruptured uterus and injuries to the birth canal.

Epidural Anesthesia

While some mothers insist on a natural delivery without pain medications, others prefer medications to stop or decrease labor pains. Epidural anesthesia is the most popular method of pain relief during labor, requested by more than 50% of women giving birth. Epidurals are effective for relieving pain associated with contractions and delivery, but they may pose risks for the baby. Reported problems for the baby include an increase in fetal heart rate, fetal distress, and respiratory distress. These conditions often lead to the need for forceps or vacuums, cesarean deliveries, and episiotomies, a cut made in the tissue between the vaginal opening and the anus during childbirth.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is caused by an increased amount of hormones produced in the mother’s body during pregnancy. This can interfere with the body’s ability to process insulin and cause diabetes during pregnancy. If properly diagnosed and treated early on in the pregnancy, effective medical management is possible. If it is misdiagnosed, or left untreated during pregnancy, there is an increased risk of a catastrophic birth injury for the baby. Gestational diabetes can cause a large baby (9 pounds or more) and a necessary cesarean section, premature birth, and infant breathing problems. Infants born with excess insulin become children who are at risk for obesity and adults who are at risk for type 2 diabetes

Maternal Infections

Certain infectious diseases in the mother during pregnancy or during childbirth can increase the risk of birth injuries. Congenital infections can cross the placenta to infect the unborn fetus. Untreated infections can interfere with the birthing process or disrupt the baby’s oxygen supply, affect fetal membranes, or damage the placenta. Common congenital infections that can cause a catastrophic birth injury include: Cytomegalovirus (CMV); Herpes Simplex Virus; Rubella; and Toxoplasmosis.


Preeclampsia is a serious condition where the mother experiences high blood pressure toward the end of the pregnancy often due to abnormalities with the placenta. If Preeclampsia develops during pregnancy, the baby will have an increased risk of oxygen deprivation or brain damage. Mothers who develop this condition often require an early delivery by C-section to protect the baby. Severe preeclampsiais associated with different degrees of fetal injury including low birth weight, malnutrition, and growth retardation.

Prolonged Labor

Prolonged labor also increases the risk of birth injuries because it puts additional stress on the mother and the fetus. Additionally, it becomes a medical concern if the baby remains in the birth canal for more than 18 hours. This creates pressure on the baby’s brain, which can lead to birth injuries and brain damage, a serious catastrophic birth injury with life-long consequences for the child. According to most medical standards, any labor that lasts more than 18 hours should require an emergency C-section.

What Damages Can You Claim From a Birth Injury?

According to law, medical professionals owe their patients a certain duty of care. This includes providing the certain standards of care to their patients to prevent injury or death while under medical care. If a doctor fails to treat a patient the way another reasonable medical professional would in the same circumstances, the doctor may be held liable for medical negligence or medical malpractice. Damages in a successful medical malpractice lawsuit for birth injuries may include:

  • Life-long medical expenses
  • Permanent disability expenses for home healthcare and special education
  • Loss of income for parents who must miss work days, reduce work hours, or leave a job to care for a disabled child
  • Mental anguish on the parent’s part
  • Pain and suffering on the child’s part
  • Diminished quality of life

Although monetary compensation can not change a catastrophic birth injury, it can help with the child’s medical care and other expenses which may last a lifetime.

Calculating payments for a birth injury case depends on many factors, including the type of injury the child suffered and whether the child’s damage is temporary or permanent. Types of damages considered when filing a claim include:

Economic Damages

Economic damages include compensation for financial losses caused by birth injuries. These damages include medical expenses, rehabilitation and therapy expenses, prescription medication expenses, and expenses for home healthcare and necessary medical devices.

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages include compensation for losses that are difficult to measure in monetary rewards. These damages include compensation for the child’s pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, temporary or permanent disability, and loss of normal life activities.

Punitive Damages

In some medical malpractice lawsuits, punitive damages may be awarded for injuries. Punitive damages are awarded solely to punish the responsible parties whose negligent actions or egregious conduct caused injury to the patient. Punitive damages may be awarded on top of economic and non-economic damages.

If your child suffered injuries before, during, or after childbirth due to medical negligence, contact an Indiana medical malpractice attorney who can help you recover damages. Living with a catastrophic birth injury can have a big impact on your lifestyle and your child’s healthcare needs and mental health for a long time.

Can You Sue the Hospital for a Catastrophic Birth Injury?

Yes, you can file a medical malpractice lawsuit against all responsible parties including the hospital, but you must file it within two years of the injury date, or when you first realized the injury. A medical malpractice attorney can guide you through the civil process and ensure that all Indiana deadlines and filing requirements are met on time.