Childbirth death an ‘unmitigated catastrophe’

Posted: 29th January 2014

HospIn a unique decision, the High Court has ruled that an NHS Trust which admitted full liability for a mother's tragic death in childbirth is nevertheless not obliged pay compensation to her gravely disabled son.

In an 'unmitigated catastrophe' that unfolded at Cumbria’s Whitehaven Hospital, the mother, who was in her 40s, suffered a ruptured uterus before her son, now aged 11, was born barely alive in 2002. The mother endured 'extreme distress and pain' before the delivery, and suffered a cardiac arrest and died despite medics' desperate attempts to save her.

Her son was born, 'white and floppy', shortly before she died and suffered acute oxygen starvation and associated brain damage. A victim of cerebral palsy, he will need extensive care and assistance throughout his life. The Court noted, "For the father, what should have been the joy of a new birth turned into an unmitigated catastrophe."

North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust had admitted liability for the mother's death on the basis that she would have survived had it not been for negligent post-natal care. That meant that the Trust was obliged to compensate the widower and the couple’s children for their mother’s tragic loss. However, the Trust denied that it could be held responsible for the 11-year-old boy's devastating injuries.

His legal team claimed that a midwife had been negligent in giving the mother a second dose of a labour-inducing drug. However, in dismissing that claim, the Court noted that the uterine rupture suffered by the mother was an 'exceedingly rare' event and that the midwife’s decision was ‘within the bounds of reasonable judgment’.

The judge concluded, “I of course accept that she (the midwife) might, equally reasonably, have adopted a very cautious approach and that, had she done so, this tragedy would not have occurred. But this reflects the fact there are a range of possible reasonable actions that might have been taken in this case and the midwife's decision was within that range." The ruling means that the boy will not be compensated for his injuries.