April Valentine went to the hospital to have her baby, but she never got to go home.
April Valentine was left alone in a hospital room as her partner yelled in the hallway that she wasn’t breathing. Her doctor hadn’t been to see her. Her family is suing the hospital and its staff for her death.
31-year-old April Valentine entered the Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, California, in early January to have a baby. But April died in labor. Her partner, Nigha Robertson, and her family have filed a lawsuit claiming that the hospital and staff’s negligence caused her death.
Valentine was excited for her baby’s arrival and did everything she could to prepare. She hired a birthing doula to provide emotional, physical and educational support. She also prioritized finding a Black physician, as Valentine was aware of statistics reporting that Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Her doula helped Valentine create her birth plan; she took childbirth classes, learned about pain management, and kept up her exercise.
Valentine was close with her extended family and wanted to be surrounded by her loved ones in the delivery room. However, her doula knew that many hospitals restrict the number of guests during delivery. Valentine narrowed her list of visitors to include her partner, Robertson; her sister, Kesiah Cordova; and her doula, Stanis Askew.
However, despite having been told ahead of time that her doula could be present for the delivery, the doula was not permitted to be on site when Valentine was in labor. During the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals were very strict with the number of people in the delivery room. However, by the time Valentine delivered in early 2023, the restrictions were lifted. She was assured that a doula would be permitted, in addition to her support people. In fact, the California Department of Health recommended that doulas be allowed to support birthing mothers. Still, the hospital denied access to her doula.
Valentine went into labor and headed to the hospital, accompanied by Robertson and Cordova. Robertson said later that the hospital felt “like a prison” and that it was cold and the windows were leaking. He put towels by the windows to absorb water coming in.
He also claimed that Valentine’s obstetrician did not arrive for several hours, even after Valentine told the nurses that she needed to see her doctor. Cordova said she witnessed her sister asking the nurses to call the doctor, and the nurses refused.
What caused Valentine’s death?
Valentine began to have contractions. The nurses allegedly were inattentive, and Valentine was unable to be accompanied by her doula, except by text messages. The nurses were not able to place the epidural efficiently; they stuck Valentine about six times and the administration of the epidural took 15 minutes.
Valentine began to complain of pain, swelling and numbness in her legs. Nurses claimed this is “normal” after an epidural, and they refused to contact her doctor. The doctor did not see Valentine until nearly a day after she was admitted to the hospital. Valentine continued to request access to her doula and was denied.
Valentine vomited and stopped breathing. Robertson described it as her body “locking up” and that her eyes rolled back in her head. He ran into the hallway and yelled for help, exclaiming that she was not breathing and needed attention. Robertson then began to administer CPR until doctors came and attended to Valentine several minutes later.
Baby Aniya Heavenly-April Robertson was born alive by emergency cesarean section, though she was unresponsive. Aniya survived.
The family’s lawsuit against the hospital and staff
There are racial inequity components to the lawsuit filed by Robertson and Valentine’s family. The lawsuit alleges negligence by the hospital and its staff related to her care, and claims deficiencies resulting in her death.
The California state health department reviewed Valentine’s case and claimed that the hospital failed to prevent deficiencies that would cause a patient to become seriously ill or die. Other inspection records indicated failures in everything from rodent activity to improper medical care, and failures to inform families of changes to patients’ conditions.
Both internal review and external investigations are pending at the time of this writing.
A 2022 California law triples the amount of compensation that a medical malpractice plaintiff may receive for pain and suffering.
The new law sets a new limit of $350,000, increasing to $750,000 over the next 10 years, and a 2% annual adjustment thereafter, on non-economic damages for cases not involving a patient’s death. For cases where a patient has died, the limit increased to $500,000 that will grow to $1 million over 10 years and 2% annual increase thereafter.
Previously, the California cap on non-economic damages was $250,000. There was no cap on damages for economic losses. Each state has its own set of rules about damage caps for medical malpractice and other types of cases.
Is there a difference between medical malpractice and negligence?
When you entrust your well-being to a healthcare provider, you expect a certain standard of care. Similarly, when you walk into a building or drive a car, you expect a certain level of safety. However, mistakes happen, and sometimes these can lead to significant injuries or even death. In the legal realm, the concepts of "medical malpractice" and "negligence" address these situations. While both fall under the umbrella of personal injury law, they differ in terms of the parties involved, the standards of proof required, and the types of damages that can be claimed.
What is medical malpractice?
Medical malpractice refers specifically to errors made in a healthcare setting. This could involve doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or any other healthcare professional. The crux of a medical malpractice claim is that a medical professional's actions or omissions deviated from the accepted standard of care in their field, resulting in harm to the patient.
Key components of a medical malpractice claim
- Duty of care. There must be an established doctor-patient relationship, meaning the healthcare provider owed a duty to provide competent care.
- Breach of standard of care. You must prove that the healthcare provider failed to adhere to the standard of care that is commonly accepted in their specific field.
- Causation. There must be a direct link between the breach of standard care and the injury sustained.
- Damages. Finally, the patient must have suffered damages, either physical, emotional, or financial, as a result of the breach. This would apply to the survivors of a patient who died.
What’s the difference between medical malpractice and negligence claims?
Negligence in a personal injury case is a broader term that refers to any breach of the duty to act reasonably in a way that will not harm others. Unlike medical malpractice, negligence can occur in various settings like driving, maintaining a property, or manufacturing a product.
While the key elements of these two types of claims are similar, there are some differences.
- Complexity and expertise. Medical malpractice cases often require testimony from medical experts to establish what the standard of care should have been and how it was breached. Negligence cases might not require such specialized knowledge, although expert witnesses can still be useful.
- Standard of proof. In medical malpractice, you must prove that a similarly qualified healthcare provider would not have made the same mistake under similar circumstances. In a negligence claim, you must prove that a "reasonable person" would not have acted (or failed to act) in the way the defendant did.
- Damages. Medical malpractice could involve specific damages like future medical costs related to the malpractice, lost wages, and even damages for loss of enjoyment of life. Negligence generally involves compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering, but these are usually not as specialized as in medical malpractice cases.
While both medical malpractice and negligence aim to hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions or lack thereof, the standards for proving each claim differ significantly.
Since April Valentine’s death occurred within a medical facility while she was being attended to by medical professionals (including nurses), the lawsuit will likely be handled as medical malpractice. It seems as though several failures within the hospital system led to her death. The plaintiffs will need to prove that her death is the direct result of the negligence and malpractice. They must prove that if she had the proper medical treatment and attention from providers, her death would have been avoided.
As the lawyers wade through evidence, expert testimony, and regulatory and other documents, more information will emerge.