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Busy Midwife's Momentary Lapse Caused Baby Boy's Catastrophic Injuries

Medical professionals often have to make swift judgment calls on the basis of limited information that sadly do not always turn out to be right. In a case on point, a judge found that a midwife's failure to ask a crucial question during an anguished phone call was the cause of a baby boy's catastrophic injuries.

After a life blighted by severe disability, the boy tragically died at the age of 12. On behalf of his estate, his mother lodged a clinical negligence claim against the NHS trust that managed the hospital where he was born. Although she had suffered much, the mother made no claim of her own and, for her and her partner, the case was not about money. They simply wanted justice for their little boy.

The woman was 36 weeks pregnant with the boy when she began to suffer intense abdominal pain during a shopping trip. Her placenta had come away from the wall of her uterus, putting her baby at grave risk. It was her case that, when her anxious partner telephoned the hospital's maternity unit, a midwife advised him to take her home to bed and give her paracetamol. She later attended the hospital's A&E department but, by that time, it was too late to save her baby from devastating brain damage.

The telephone call was not recorded but, following a trial, the judge ruled that it had been made. Faced with a father-to-be who was panicky and inarticulate, the busy and distracted midwife sought to provide reassurance. She failed to ask him how bad the woman's pain was. Had she done so, he would have told her that it was severe or intense. Armed with that information, she would have advised him to bring the woman to the maternity unit immediately.

The judge found that the midwife's failure to ask the critical question rendered her advice to take the woman home negligent. It was accepted on all sides that, had she gone to hospital straight away, her baby would probably have been born uninjured. In the light of the judge's findings, the damages payable to the boy's estate were agreed at £500,000.

The judge noted that NHS practices had greatly changed in the years since the boy's birth and that telephone calls to hospitals are now routinely recorded. He observed that it might seem hard on the trust that one midwife letting her guard and standards drop for a few seconds should have such consequences. That, however, was a reflection of the vital work done by midwives and other health professionals, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.