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Medical Negligence: Childbirth

Article by: Attorney Fawzia Khan

Can one successfully claim for damages if hospital staff fail to monitor a mother and the foetus during child birth and the child is born brain damaged?

On 15 August 2019, the Supreme Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in a medical negligence matter, where a mother sued the MEC for Health after the hospital staff for failing to properly monitor her and the baby during the child birth process when her baby was born brain damaged.

Medical negligence occurs when medical professionals fail to meet the standard of care accepted by the medical community, resulting in injury or death to the patient. The standard of care refers to an appropriate level of caution, consideration and good judgment that should be exercised by medical professionals in various situations. There was no doubt that the hospital failed to monitor the child and the mother. The question was whether the hospital’s failure caused the child was born brain damaged.

The Eastern Cape High Court who first heard the matter, found no proof that the child’s brain damage was caused by the hospital staffs’ failure to monitor the foetus and the mother during childbirth. The mother took it on appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal “the SCA”). The SCA said that the hospital owed the mother a duty of care the moment she was admitted to the hospital in labour. The court said that the hospital staff were expected to monitor the condition of the mother and foetus and to have acted appropriately following on the results of the monitoring. It found that the staff negligently failed to do the monitoring and therefore breached their duty of care. The court found that the hospital staff’s conduct was wrongful and negligent. However, the court said that this negligence and wrongfulness was not sufficient to establish a claim for damages. After hearing all the events on the day pertaining to the conduct of the hospital staff, and based on the reasoning of the experts it was found that the brain damage was caused by a sudden, total, persistent lack of blood supply to the brain. This blood supply was caused by a “perinatal sentinel event” and this is what caused the damage to the brain.

The court said it was not proved that there would have been sufficient time in which to deliver the baby so as to avoid damage. In looking at whether this “sentinel event” could have been detected through monitoring, the court found that warnings of an impending sentinel event could not be detected and if a sentinel event did occur it would not be detected within a reasonable time within which to deliver the baby. It therefore dismissed the mother’s claim for damages.

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