Shoulder Dystocia: Is my doctor at fault?

Jason R. Schultz
Connect with me
Jason R. Schultz is a Peachtree City Personal Injury Attorney Serving the Greater Atlanta Metro Area

Complications during labor and delivery aren't uncommon. But when they do occur, a concern that often comes up is whether the doctor did something wrong. The answer depends on the circumstances. One specific type of complication is shoulder dystocia. Understanding what this is and how it happens may help Atlanta parents determine if the doctor may be at fault for related injuries.

What is shoulder dystocia and how does it occur? 

Most vaginal births occur without incident. But sometimes there's an interruption to this natural process. One example is when the baby's shoulders get stuck in the birth canal on the mother’s pelvic bones. This is shoulder dystocia. This complication can happen when the mother's pelvic opening is too small for the baby's shoulders to fit. It can also occur with a larger baby.

This slows down labor and delivery and may put the mother and baby at further risk of complications or injuries. This might include a lack of oxygen for the baby and heavy bleeding for the mother.

Are there risk factors for shoulder dystocia?

Most doctors can't predict if a baby's shoulders will get stuck during labor and delivery. But risk factors might suggest the possibility; for instance, if the baby is larger than average or the mother’s pelvic opening is small.

Other maternal risk factors may include:

  • obesity;
  • diabetes; and
  • multiple pregnancies at once.

If shoulder dystocia occurred during a previous birth, the mother may be at risk again. Keep in mind that shoulder dystocia can happen even without these risk factors. The presence of a large baby or other risk factors doesn't mean it will necessarily result in this complication.

How do I know if a doctor is at fault for shoulder dystocia-related injuries?

A doctor can't cause shoulder dystocia to occur. But it's possible that he/she fails to respond in a timely and appropriate manner if it does occur. Negligence is the basis to any claim against a doctor.

One way to determine if the doctor was negligent is by comparing his or her actions to what another doctor in a similar set of circumstances would have done. The question becomes, did the doctor act in a reasonable manner?

One of the key elements in this type of case is recognizing signs of shoulder dystocia. Obstetricians should know what they are so they can respond quickly.  The most obvious is when the doctor can see the baby's head but there's no further progress in the delivery. The assumption is that the shoulders can't get through because they're stuck in the birth canal.

Another key element is how the doctor responds to the complication. Sometimes the safest option is to deliver the baby through an emergency C-section. An example is when there's a lack of oxygen to the baby. If the oxygen deprivation goes on too long, it could result in brain damage and may even contribute to cerebral palsy.

Also, continuing with a difficult vaginal birth could cause injury to the baby. For instance, using force to get the baby through could lead to a broken arm or collarbone.

Shoulder dystocia doesn't always call for a C-section. There are other techniques the doctor can use to manipulate the baby into a safer position. But if it's not done the right way and it causes injury, the doctor may be at fault. A medical expert may have to testify regarding whether the doctor acted within the standard of care or if he or she was negligent.

If I or my child suffered injuries because of shoulder dystocia, do I have any legal rights?

The best way to know if there is a case for medical malpractice is to seek legal counsel. A lawyer will evaluate whether the doctor acted negligently, whether this negligence caused injuries, and whether you can present evidence that you and/or your child suffered damages. Your attorney can assist with the collection of evidence and secure testimony from a medical expert regarding the doctor’s care.

Don't delay learning more about your rights and how to protect them. Call Jason R. Schultz at 404-474-0804 to set up a consultation about your case.