Fetal distress is a condition that can affect a fetus in the womb or during delivery. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has defined this condition as a state when the fetus isn’t getting sufficient oxygen. The medical professionals overseeing one’s pregnancy or delivery are responsible for monitoring for signs of fetal distress and addressing them appropriately and quickly.
Medical Professionals’ Duty of Care
If a fetus in distress doesn’t receive the medical treatment needed, both the baby and mother can suffer ill effects. These ill effects can be temporary, result in lifelong disability, or even result in death. Due to the fact that the responsible medical professionals and medical facilities have a specific duty of care to the mother and baby, one may have a medical malpractice suit if damage occurs from fetal distress. If either the baby or mother dies as a result of the medical negligence, the survivor may have a claim of wrongful death.
Having a specific duty of care is a legal concept that defines when a person has an affirmative duty to act to prevent injury or save the life of another specific person. When a medical professional and facility admit and care for a pregnant woman, they are affirmatively taking responsibility for the welfare of both mother and fetus.
Having a specific duty of care is an important legal concept because generally under state law, Illinois included, people don’t have a duty of care to help someone else. Absent a “Good Samaritan” law, most jurisdictions in the United States don’t allow people to sue others for not rendering aid.
In contrast, a doctor or nurse who agrees to provide care is not only legally obligated to provide it, but he or she must do so as well as another reasonably qualified practitioner would do so. In other words, the standard of care required by medical professionals is determined on the level of care the mother and fetus could reasonable expect to receive in their area.
Illinois uses the “reasonably prudent” standard. The court will decide whether the actions of the medical professional reflected a level of competency that would be shown by another reasonably prudent professional with the required training of someone in his or her position.
Failing to Meet the Standard of Care
There are two main areas where a medical professional’s behavior can fail to meet the standard of care when a fetus is in distress. First, the distress must be properly identified. If the fetus and mother aren’t properly monitored, signs of distress may go unnoticed. Second, the right care must be provided when distress is recognized. The cause of the distress can vary, and it’s up to the medical professional to be able to quickly diagnose what immediate treatment will relieve the fetus’s distress.
Finally, for a medical malpractice case due to a fetus’s distress to be successful, there must be some damages. Plaintiffs in these cases can sue for compensatory damages that cover actual medical and rehabilitation costs. If a baby is born with permanent injuries, this can mean an award in the millions of dollars.
Plaintiffs may also sue for pain and suffering damages. If the actions of the medical professional and/or facility are sufficiently egregious, a plaintiff may also be able to claim punitive damages.