Stillbirths: Medical Malpractice During Childbirth
What to do if your baby’s stillbirth was caused by medical negligence
If a healthcare provider’s negligence caused your child to be stillborn, you may be able to hold the healthcare provider accountable and receive compensation.
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A “stillbirth” is the death or loss of a baby before or during delivery. Some stillbirths are unavoidable, while others are the result of medical malpractice.
After a stillbirth caused by medical malpractice, you may be able to hold the responsible healthcare professional liable. Although this won’t make up for the loss of your child, it may provide financial compensation to help with your physical and emotional recovery. What’s more, suing the at-fault healthcare professional may help hold medical professionals accountable and prevent harm to other babies.
Let’s take a closer look at how medical negligence can lead to stillbirths.
What is a stillbirth?
A miscarriage is the loss of an embryo or fetus before it’s developed enough to survive. Most miscarriages happen in the first 3 months of pregnancy.
A small percentage of miscarriages happen after 20 weeks. These miscarriages are called stillbirths. A stillbirth is sometimes referred to as intrauterine fetal death or antenatal death.
A stillbirth can happen before delivery, or during labor and delivery.
- An early stillbirth is a fetal death occurring between 20-27 weeks of pregnancy.
- A late stillbirth is a fetal death occurring between 28-36 weeks of pregnancy.
- A term stillbirth occurs between 37 or more completed weeks of pregnancy.
According to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital
, the most common sign of stillbirth is decreased movement in the baby. If you notice your baby moving less than usual, contact your doctor immediately.
How common are stillbirths?
Stillbirths are rare, but they do happen.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stillbirths affect roughly 1 in 160 births, which translates to about 24,000 stillbirths in the United States every year.
Stillbirth rates have declined over the last 3 decades across the globe, but rates in the U.S. remain higher than in many other industrialized countries. Interestingly, stillbirth rates increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, presumably because pregnant women received less care in some cases.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 50% of stillbirths occur while the woman is in labor.
What causes stillbirth?
The 5 most common causes of stillbirth (listed from most common to least common) are as follows:
- Pregnancy and labor complications. Significant complications during pregnancy or labor cause roughly 1 in 3 stillbirths. These complications include preterm labor and premature rupture of membranes that hold the amniotic fluid.
- Problems with the placenta. Almost 1 in 4 stillbirths are caused by problems with the placenta, such as placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the womb before the baby is born) and placenta previa (when the placenta covers part or all of the cervix).
- Birth defects. In roughly 1 of every 10 stillbirths, the fetus had a genetic or structural birth defect that causes the death.
- Infection. In roughly 1 of every 10 stillbirths, the death is caused by an infection in the fetus or in the placenta.
- Problems with the umbilical cord. Problems with the umbilical cord, such as the cord becoming knotted or squeezed, cause about 1 in 10 stillbirths.
In addition to the causes of stillbirth listed above, there are certain factors that increase the risk of delivering a stillborn baby:
- Having twins
- Being over 35 years of age
- Smoking, drinking alcohol, or misusing drugs while pregnant
- Being obese
- Having a pre-existing physical health condition, such as epilepsy, high blood pressure, or diabetes
- Having had a previous pregnancy loss
If your doctor doesn’t know what caused the stillbirth, they may perform 1 of the following tests to find out:
- Blood tests. Blood tests will show if you have preeclampsia, obstetric cholestasis, diabetes, or some other condition that may have caused or contributed to the stillbirth.
- Examination of the umbilical cord, membranes, and placenta. Your doctor may look for an abnormality that prevented your baby from receiving oxygen, blood, and nutrients.
- Tests for infection. Your doctor may take a sample of your urine, blood, or cells from your vagina or cervix to test for infection.
- Genetic tests. Your doctor may take a sample of the umbilical cord to determine if your baby had genetic problems that may have caused or contributed to the stillbirth.
When is a stillbirth medical malpractice?
In many cases, there’s no one to blame for a stillbirth. For example, when a stillbirth is caused by a genetic birth defect it’s considered unavoidable.
However, you may be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit if a licensed healthcare professional's negligent act or omission caused or contributed to the stillbirth. To establish a medical malpractice claim, you need to prove that:
- The healthcare professional failed to exercise the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable healthcare professional in the same position, and
- Such failure was the proximate cause of the stillbirth.
Due to the technical nature of obstetrics and gynecology, expert witness testimony is usually required to determine whether your healthcare professional's actions fell below the applicable standard of care.
Examples of actions (or inactions) that may be considered malpractice include:
- Overlooking signs of fetal distress
- Delaying an emergency Caesarean section
- Inadvertently piercing the mother’s placenta
- Failing to adhere to regulations and procedures that help prevent infection
- Failing to identify Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IGR)
Real Life Example:Melanie Foster, a Connecticut resident, sued Doctor Corinne de Cholnoky for medical malpractice in the death of her 22-week-old fetus.
In the lawsuit, Melanie alleged that Dr. Cholnoky ruptured Melanie’s fetal membrane while trying to remove an intrauterine birth control device after having failed to make sure Melanie wasn’t pregnant before the procedure.
The parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Medical malpractice lawsuits must be filed against licensed healthcare professionals.
But what if someone else causes a stillbirth?
If a person other than a medical professional is responsible for a stillbirth, you may be able to sue them for negligence.
Consider the following real-life case involving Ciera Stoelting.
Real Life Example:Ciera Stoelting was an inmate in an Orange County jail. On May 12, 2018, she told a jail employee that she was having contractions and needed to go to a hospital. Instead of taking her to the hospital, jail employees moved her to an “infirmary pod” in the jail and told her to drink 8 cups of water and wait until the next day to see a doctor.
Later that day, Ciera began giving birth while sitting on the toilet inside the infirmary cell. According to the lawsuit, Ciera begged for medical assistance while the jail staff sat by and watched her deliver a stillborn baby.
Ciera settled with the Orange County Board of Supervisors for $1.5 million.
Should I contact a birth injury attorney?
Birth injury claims are particularly challenging given the complex medical issues involved, the need for expert witnesses, and the multiple defendants and insurance companies typically on the other side.
If you think you may have lost a baby as a result of medical negligence, get in touch with an experienced birth injury attorney using our free online directory.
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