A woman was admitted to Chowan Hospital to have labor induced for the birth of her baby. She was admitted on a Friday night, labor was induced, and she was given the drug Pitocin on Saturday morning. No vaginal exam was performed until after noon on Saturday.
The nurse who performed the exam discovered an umbilical prolapse, a condition where the umbilical cord protrudes from the vagina. If the cord becomes compressed, it can restrict the flow of blood and oxygen to the baby, causing brain damage.
The nurse called the attending obstetrician and prepared the mother for an emergency C-section. It took 16 minutes to move the mother into the operating room, where the C-section was performed under local anesthetic.
The baby was delivered and had an Apgar Score of 0 at one minute after birth (no heartbeat, no respiration, no muscle tone), 3 at five minutes, and 7 at 10 minutes (normal). The Apgar Score, named after Dr. Virginia Apgar, who developed it, measures a newborn’s condition and indicates whether immediate additional or emergency care is needed.
The baby was transferred to The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia, where he received treatment.
The plaintiffs, the mother of the baby and his court-appointed guardian, sued the hospital where the child was delivered and the doctor who delivered him. Plaintiffs allege that the baby has permanent brain damage, causing cognitive impairment and loss of motor control.
The defendants argued to the trial court that they should be held to a lower standard of care called the sudden emergency doctrine.
The defendants persuaded the trial judge to instruct the jury on this doctrine, which provides that:
- A person who, not through his own negligence,
- is confronted with imminent danger to himself and others,
- actual or apparent,
- is not required to use the same judgment as he would
- if there were more time to make a decision.
All that the law requires in such an emergency is that a person makes a decision that a reasonable and prudent person would make under the same or similar conditions. This is true even if the decision proves not to be the best or safest.
The trial judge gave the jury an instruction incorporating these elements over the objections of the plaintiffs’ attorney. The jury returned a verdict for the defendants, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The Court of Appeals of North Carolina carefully examined the law on the issue of the application of the sudden emergency doctrine in cases of alleged medical negligence. This issue had not previously been addressed in North Carolina, so the court looked at cases from Tennessee, New Mexico, and Massachusetts.
The Court ultimately held that the trial court erred when it instructed the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine, and in particular because the court instructed the jury to hold the hospital to the standard of what a reasonable and prudent person would do when faced with the same emergency. The court’s examination of cases from other states consistently indicated that, when faced with a medical emergency, physicians and nurses are held to a higher standard than lay people.
The Court ruled that the sudden emergency doctrine should not be applied in cases of alleged medical negligence because the standard of care for medical professionals should include the ability to respond to emergencies. The Court noted that, even in jurisdictions where the doctrine could be invoked in medical negligence cases, the standard applied was for a reasonable health care professional, not a reasonable person.
The Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s erroneous jury instruction probably misled the jury, and therefore the court reversed the judgment for the defendants and remanded the case for a new trial.
It is important to have an attorney who is up to date on the most recent court decisions, especially in an area of law that is unsettled. If you or someone you know has been injured due to the negligence of another, contact an experienced personal injury attorney from the Tatum Law Firm today for a free consultation.
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