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Meconium Aspiration – Legal Issues

Sometimes, meconium aspiration or, in particular, its effects may be preventable. You hope that your medical team abided by the most up-to-date medical standards and best practices, but mistakes do happen that can cause serious consequences.

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If this happens, and causes your infant injury, you may have a medical malpractice claim against your doctor, medical team, and/or the hospital. Further, while the idea of a lawsuit may be very unappealing to you, the law does hold medical practitioners to a certain standard of care towards their patients, and when a breach of that duty creates an injury, they are liable to pay damages to you. Clearly, no monetary amount can ever compensate for an injury to a child, particularly if the meconium aspiration was so severe as to cause long term complication(s) or disability. Even so, the damages that you could be awarded if it is found that medical personnel were negligent and therefore responsible for your baby’s injuries – or if the lawsuit reached a settlement, could help cover the additional costs and expenses that are involved with caring for your infant.

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In order to bring and prevail in a medical malpractice suit, there are some legal elements that your case must meet. Medical malpractice is essentially a tort cause of action based on negligence, and, accordingly, the elements are mostly the same. Namely, to make a case for medical malpractice, you must show that
  • there was a doctor-patient relationship and the doctor owed a professional duty to the patient
  • that duty was breached
  • the breach caused the injury
  • the injury resulted in damages
In cases where an infant aspirated meconium, there are few possible ways the health care team could have breached its duty of care. For example, if there is any indication that meconium aspiration is possible (i.e. if any risk factors are present), part of the duty of care includes checking the amniotic fluid to see if there are signs of meconium present. Also, your medical team should be checking the baby’s heart rate to monitor whether it drops suddenly – an indication it is in distress – and, therefore, whether they should take appropriate action. If the risk factors of meconium aspiration are present (such as a late term pregnancy, maternal blood pressure, preeclampsia, etc.), doctors should be monitoring the fetus’s heart rate and condition even more carefully. As such, before or during delivery, if the medical team sees signs that the fetus is in distress or could be experiencing oxygen deprivation (which is typically a trigger for the fetus to both release and aspirate meconium), there are a number of options they could take to ensure that the fetus is in distress for the least amount of time possible, including an emergency C-section, if appropriate.

After delivery, if meconium is present in the amniotic fluid and there are indications that the baby has aspirated meconium, medical personnel should treat the baby in a way that accords with the generally accepted standards of care. This standard of care can be determined at trial or in discovery by expert testimony, but it generally goes to what a practitioner of similar skill would have done in that situation. However, if, the medical team did not follow proper procedures in using a ventilator or suction to treat the infant and the actions caused more injury, then it is possible they have breached their duty of care.

Note that, if you decide to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit, the damages that you may be entitled to include both damages for immediate and future medical expenses that your infant will incur on account of complications from meconium aspiration (to the extent caused by your medical team). Also, you are also entitled to damages for pain and suffering and any future hardships and additional costs that your child has on account of the medical team’s negligence.