Medicolegal Issues

Genetic testing and the future of cerebral palsy malpractice cases

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Would genetic testing have prevented this lawsuit?



CASE Mixed CP diagnosed at age 6 months

After learning that the statute of limitations was to run out in the near future, the parents of a 17-year-old with cerebral palsy (CP) initiated a lawsuit. At the time of her pregnancy, the mother (G2P2002) was age 39 and first sought prenatal care at 14 weeks.

Her past medical history was largely noncontributory to her current pregnancy, except for that she had hypothyroidism that was being treated with levothyroxine. She also had a history of asthma, but had had no acute episodes for years. During the course of the pregnancy there was evidence of polyhydramnios; her initial thyroid studies were abnormal (thyroid-stimulating hormone levels, 7.1 mIU/L), in part due to lack of adherence with prescribed medications. She was noted to have elevated blood pressure (BP) 150/100 mm Hg but no proteinuria, with BP monitoring during her last trimester.

The patient went into labor at 40 3/7 weeks, after spontaneous rupture of membranes. In labor and delivery she was placed on a monitor, and irregular contractions were noted. The initial vaginal examination was noted as 1-cm cervical dilation, 90% effaced, and station zero. The obstetrician evaluated the patient and ordered Pitocin augmentation. The next vaginal exam several hours later noted 3-cm dilation and 100% effacement. The Pitocin was continued. Several early decelerations, moderate variability, and better contraction pattern was noted. Eight hours into the Pitocin, there were repetitive late decelerations; the obstetrician was not notified. The nursing staff proceeded with vaginal examination, and the patient was fully dilated at station +1. Again, the doctor was not informed of the patient’s status. At 10 hours post-Pitocin initiation, the patient felt the urge to push. The obstetrician was notified, and he promptly arrived to the unit and patient’s bedside. His decision was to use forceps for the delivery, feeling this would be the most expedient way to proceed, although cesarean delivery (CD) was a definite consideration. Forceps were applied, and as the nursing staff noted,” the doctor really had to pull to deliver the head.” A male baby, 8 lb 8 oz, was delivered. A second-degree tear was noted and easily repaired following delivery of the placenta. Apgar scores were 5 and 7 at 1 and 5 minutes after birth, respectively.

The patient’s postpartum course was uneventful. The patient and baby were discharged on the third day postpartum.

As the child was evaluated by the pediatrician, the mother noted at 6 months that the child’s head lagged behind when he was picked up. He appeared stiff at times and floppy at other times according to the parents. As the child progressed he had problems with hand-to-mouth coordination, and when he would crawl he seemed to “scoot his butt,” as they stated.

The child was tested and a diagnosis of mixed cerebral palsy was made, implying a combination of spastic CP and dyskinetic CP. He is wheelchair bound. The parents filed a lawsuit against the obstetrician and the hospital, focused on hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) due to labor and delivery management being below the standard of care. They claimed that the obstetrician should have been informed by the hospital staff during the course of labor, and the obstetrician should have been more proactive in monitoring the deteriorating circumstances. This included performing a CD based on “the Category III fetal heart tracing.”

At trial, the plaintiff expert argued that failure of nursing staff to properly communicate with the obstetrician led to mismanagement. Furthermore, the obstetrician used poor judgement (ie, below the standard of care) in not performing a CD. The defense expert argued that, overall, the fetal heart tracing was Category II, and the events occurred in utero, in part reflected by the mother having polyhydramnios and hypothyroidism that was not well controlled due to lack of adherence with prescribed medications. The child in his wheelchair was brought into the courtroom. The trial went on for more than 1 week, and the jury deliberated for several hours. (Note: This case is a composite of several different events and claims.)

Continue to: WHAT’S THE VERDICT?


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