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Can Nurses Be Held Liable for Birth Injuries?

Published on November 5, 2023

Nurses play a critical role in healthcare today, including in labor and delivery. Far from their early role which was primarily to stand by and hand implements to the doctors and provide basic hygiene care to mothers before and after delivery, today’s labor and delivery nurses possess a high level of specialized knowledge and training on the birth process. During labor, birthing mothers have far more contact and interaction with the nurses responsible for their care than the doctor who periodically monitors their progress and performs the delivery. In fact, during the first and second stages of labor, a nurse is the birthing mother’s primary caregiver and decision-maker. 

Statistics show that the majority of serious birth injuries take place during the second stage of labor, as the baby descends through the birth canal. During this stage, the nurse plays a critical role in monitoring progress and communicating between mother and doctor. But is a labor and delivery nurse liable for birth injuries if something goes wrong?

A nurse is an essential medical provider during labor and delivery. Like all medical providers, a nurse may be liable if he or she committed an act of negligence resulting in a birth injury.

Failed Communication Between Nurses and Doctors is a Leading Cause of Birth Injuries

Studies show that while nurses and doctors in labor and delivery share the common goal of ensuring the outcome of a healthy mother and baby, they sometimes disagree on the methods of achieving that common goal. Teamwork between nurses and doctors in obstetrics is a critical component of the process but it’s sometimes less than optimal. Good communication between nurses and doctors during the labor and delivery process is critical in accurately reporting what the laboring mother is experiencing throughout the stages of the birthing process when the doctor isn’t physically present in the room. Unfortunately, communication sometimes breaks down due to identified issues such as the following:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Deference due to hierarchy 
  • Strained relationships between providers
  • Differing views on the benefits/risks of medications such as Oxytocin
  • Avoidance of clinical conflict
  • Desire to minimize communication
  • Desire to preserve working relationships
  • Failure to communicate care plans and rationale

Studies have shown that communication between doctors and nurses during labor and delivery leaves room for improvement that could benefit birthing mothers and their infants, but when communication breaks down, which provider is liable for a birth injury?

Malpractice in Labor and Delivery Nurses

During the stages of labor and delivery, the nurse’s responsibilities include: 

  • Checking vital signs of both mother and baby
  • Monitoring labor progression
  • Administering medications per doctor’s orders
  • Communicating causes of concern to doctors and acting as a liaison between mother and physician

If a nurse fails to notice significant changes in the vital signs of the laboring mother or infant, fails to adequately communicate those changes, or inadequately communicates a birthing mother’s experience to the physician, it’s an act of negligence. If a birthing mother’s nurse fails to adequately perform any of their duties—including administering correct medications or failing to notice and communicate critical information to the attending physician—they may be held liable for a resulting birth injury.

Common Birth Injuries

Birth injuries vary widely in seriousness from minor injuries such as bruising and forceps marks to severe injuries with lifelong implications for the child. Common birth injury claims include the following:

  • Bruising
  • Forceps marks
  • Fractures of the clavicle or arm
  • Facial paralysis
  • Subconjunctival hemorrhage
  • Cephalohematoma
  • Caput Succedaneum
  • Brachial palsy
  • Erb’s Palsy
  • Cerebral Palsy

If a nurse’s act of negligence directly causes a birth injury, the nurse is liable for damages. A birth injury claim is a category of personal injury law. “Damages” in a personal injury claim refer to all economic and non-economic consequences of the injury.

Liability in Medical Malpractice

As medical providers, nurses may be held liable for damages if their negligence directly causes a birth injury. Proving liability in a medical malpractice case is different than in standard personal injury claims because medical providers owe a special duty of care toward their patients rather than just the standard duty of care every person has toward others, which is to take reasonable measures to prevent causing injury. Medical providers have a special duty of care to treat patients to the medical industry’s accepted standards. Proving liability for a nurse or other provider requires documenting evidence showing the following:

  • That a medical provider/patient relationship existed at the time of the injury
  • The provider owed a duty of care to treat the patient at the industry-accepted standard of care
  • They breached this duty through an act of negligence
  • The negligent breach of duty directly caused the injury
  • The injury victim experienced significant damages due to the injury

Most parents of birth-injured children seek skilled legal counsel. A medical malpractice attorney investigates all aspects of the birth injury to identify the liable party. When a labor and delivery nurse fails to treat the patient at the accepted level of care and the result is a birth injury, they are responsible for damages. Compensation for birth injury damages typically comes through a payout from the provider’s medical malpractice insurance.

Is The Nurse or the Hospital Liable for Damages?

When a Phoenix medical malpractice attorney investigates a negligence malpractice claim, they also investigate to determine the correct liable party. Even though a nurse may have caused a birth injury through an act of negligence, the hospital or birthing center could be liable for damages if the nurse is a direct employee. Other examples of facility liability in nurse negligence claims include the following cases:

  • A hospital has negligent hiring practices
  • A hospital provides inadequate training for labor and delivery nurses
  • The hospital failed to put procedures in place to facilitate doctor/nurse communication
  • The hospital failed to provide adequate supervision or safety protocols

In some cases, the nurse, physician, and facility may share liability for a birth injury. Compensation for damages typically comes from the hospital or nurse’s medical malpractice insurance.

Common Compensation for Birth Injury Damages 

When a nurse commits negligence resulting in a serious birth injury, the economic and non-economic damages to the family are significant and ongoing. A successful birth injury claim helps injured children and their families gain compensation for damages such as the following:

  • Medical expenses
  • Future medical expenses, including any therapies, rehabilitation, or special services
  • Special education needs
  • Loss of future earnings if one parent must reduce work hours to provide care
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Special childcare costs
  • Home equipment and accommodations for a child’s lifelong medical condition
  • Emotional trauma

The damages parents claim in a birth injury case vary depending on the case’s circumstances and the severity of the injury. Compensation cannot erase the injury, but it helps relieve financial hardship and opens doors to the best possible medical care.

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