Shoulder dystocia describes a situation in which a baby’s shoulder becomes lodged under the mother’s pubic bone during delivery. Doctors have to be especially careful when this happens. Taking too long to deliver the child could result in oxygen deprivation, but pulling too hard can result in other injuries, such as broken bones, bruising, and damaged nerves. Often, a cesarean section is necessary for the safe delivery of the infant.
This was the situation doctors faced in the case of a Flint, Michigan woman named Libbey Bryson, who went into labor on January 1, 2008. Her eight-pound, eight-ounce baby became stuck during vaginal delivery, and later suffered serious injuries. The woman filed a lawsuit against Genesys Regional Medical Center, claiming the healthcare providers made critical mistakes, leaving her daughter disfigured and without the full use of her right arm.
Baby Suffers Erb’s Palsy
According to a 2005 study, the rate of shoulder dystocia increased by 10-fold since 1979. The number may actually be larger, as many obstetricians are reluctant to list the condition as having occurred for fear of medical malpractice lawsuits.
In this case, when the baby’s arm became stuck, doctors allegedly pulled down too hard on her head, severing nerves that controlled her arm. These are called the brachial plexus nerves, and are present in the upper shoulder near the neck. When these nerves are severed or damaged because the baby’s neck is stretched to the side during a difficult delivery, Erb’s palsy may result”a condition in which the infant loses movement and feeling in the arm, hand, and fingers. The condition can range from minor to severe, with some babies recovering completely if the nerves were not permanently damaged.
Bryson’s daughter wasn’t so lucky. She has undergone multiple surgeries and continues to wear a brace on her arm, which according to court documents, is malformed. The injury is allegedly permanent and the child will require continued therapy and assistance in completing regularly daily tasks. The plaintiffs allege that the doctors did not offer a cesarean section, and the defendants argued that doctors delivered the child using proper techniques.
State Law Caps Damages
On September 27, 2013, after a 12-day trial, a jury awarded Bryson $12.9 million in damages. A Genesys spokeswoman stated the company was considering an appeal. State law caps non-economic damages at $433,400, so the judgment is expected to be reduced to about four million dollars.
According to a 2004 editorial in the American Family Physician, shoulder dystocia can be one of the most frightening emergencies in the delivery room. Most cases occur with no warning, but odds are greater with heavier fetuses. Complications can include not only injury to the brachial plexus nerves, but postpartum hemorrhage and fourth-degree lacerations. They note that brachial plexus palsies occur in 4 to 15 percent of infants suffering from shoulder dystocia.