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Legally, stillbirth describes a baby born without any signs of life having reached 24 of the normal 40 weeks of gestation. If the baby dies before 24 weeks of gestation, this is termed a miscarriage. If a baby is born alive, but tragically passes away shortly after birth, this will be regarded as infant mortality (and is subject to an inquest).
There is often no identifiable reason for a stillbirth. Common causes include hereditary birth defects or the placenta coming away from the wall of the uterus (placental abruption). Expectant mothers with diabetes or high blood pressure are also at risk.
A baby may suffer physical trauma simply as a result of being born. Some injuries have little or no consequence, some can have life-long consequences and some are fatal. Sadly, stillbirth is not uncommon. Recent surveys by the National Audit Office suggest that one in 200 babies in the UK is stillborn or dies within days of birth.
A major cause of stillbirth is reduced oxygen levels to the baby (either while in the uterus or during birth). In 34% of stillbirth cases a significant factor is the misuse or misinterpretation of results from cardiotocography (CTG) equipment used to monitor the baby's heartbeat by staff ranging from midwives to consultants.
Health care specialists have a professional duty to monitor both mother and baby carefully and skilfully to identify any worrying changes and treat without delay. Failure in the care which ends in stillbirth or injury may give rise to a compensation claim.
No amount of money will ever compensate for such a tragic loss. Many bereaved parents take action to try to prevent others having to go through the heartbreak they have experienced.
How do I make a stillbirth claim
A stillbirth claim can be made on behalf of the mother in recognition of the medical negligence responsible for her physical injury and trauma caused by the loss of her child. Clearly any parent may suffer psychological distress in these circumstances.
If we can prove that the stillbirth was a result of sub-standard care during pregnancy or during the birth of your baby, you may have a case for making a claim.
The death of any child under the age of 18 must be reported to the Coroner and reviewed by a Child Death Overview Panel on behalf of the Local Safeguarding Children Board.
However, there is no legal requirement for an inquest to be held in stillbirth cases, although many more Coroners are insisting that such deaths be reported to them.
Stillbirth claims are challenging to deal with, both legally and emotionally. We appreciate that the circumstances that made you contact us will be very distressing, but our experts will support you every step of the way. If we feel you may have a negligence claim, you can rest assured that you are in the care of one of the very best clinical negligence teams in the UK.
Stillbirth is not a rare tragedy in the UK. Even today, one in four women lose a baby during pregnancy and birth.
Infections such as toxoplasmosis, Group B Streptococcus, listeriosis or German measles (rubella) can cause stillbirth and pre-natal injury while problems with the placenta or premature rupture of the membranes surrounding the baby can often have fatal consequences.
Most employers offer compassionate leave to bereaved parents as part of their basic contract of employment, but even if you’re self-employed or haven’t been with your employer for long enough to qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay, you may be eligible for Maternity Allowance.
You can find useful advice about government benefits and support on the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity (SANDS) website or on the Gov.UK website. Other information can be found on Tommy’s Website, a charity devised to research into stillbirth and pregnancy problems.
After four years of ongoing litigation by Shoosmiths, the Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust finally admitted negligence leading to the death of Michelle Hemmington's and Paul Buckley’s son Louie, who died within 30 minutes of being born in May 2011.
Louie was officially declared stillborn, which Michelle still disputes. Despite a convincing mass of evidence to support the family’s claim, the Trust continued to deny negligence and disputed liability.
Had the Trust admitted liability much earlier than they did, they would have saved themselves costs and Michelle and her family could have been spared four years of emotional anguish.
Further lengthy negotiations were required to secure a compensation award totalling £42,500 for Michelle herself and claims for psychiatric injuries suffered by Louie’s father, Paul Buckley and Michelle’s twin sister, Donna Bevin, who were both present during the labour and birth.
Many may think the amount awarded is very little given the obvious distress and psychological injuries Michelle, her husband and sister suffered, but these sort of sums are the best that can now be obtained in these cases. Recent changes in the law make claims by close relations who have witnessed shocking trauma as secondary victims much more difficult and in some cases virtually impossible.
Listen to Michelle’s story in this video.
On 5 November 2013, Rebecca Ponchard was 41 weeks pregnant with baby daughter Ruby when she was admitted to King’s College Hospital, London. Tragically, following a delayed emergency caesarean section baby Ruby was stillborn.
Rebecca and her husband Edward had strongly suspected that the management of Ruby’s birth had been inadequate and they sought answers from the Trust. After some months, the Trust carried out an investigation into baby Ruby’s stillbirth.
The investigation concluded there had been a failure on the part of the midwife to recognise that Rebecca was a ‘high risk labour’ due to her previous medical history. The internal investigation also revealed that National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines had not been followed and that cardiotocography (CTG) equipment to monitor the fetal heart had been misused and the results misinterpreted.
However, although the investigation went some way to describing what happened, Rebecca and Edward believed it did not go far enough in explaining why and how these failures were allowed to happen.
The only recourse for Rebecca and Edward (and other parents who find themselves in this situation) is to bring a civil claim against the Trust to establish whether or not negligent care played any part in the death of their child. They instructed Sarah Harper a senior associate at Shoosmiths, who specialises in stillbirth claims, to investigate a civil claim.
Rebecca and Edward made a second complaint to the Trust and raised some more detailed questions in response to which the Trust confirmed that the midwife responsible for Rebecca’s care that day had not practiced for nine months and this was her first shift back. They also confirmed that the midwife was unfamiliar with the location of vital equipment and the procedures in the maternity ward.
At present midwives have to 'revalidate” with the Nursing and Midwifery council every three years. However, in order to qualify for that revalidation and be considered competent, they are required to work only a minimum of 450 practice hours over a three-year period. Sarah Harper, explains:
‘A midwife could conceivably do approximately 60 days of work at the start of any given three year period, take two-and-a-half years off, revalidate and still be considered competent enough to supervise a child birth at the end of those three years.’
Rebecca was deeply concerned that it was her midwife’s lack of up-to-date experience and current working knowledge which had caused the errors leading to Ruby being stillborn. Ideally the couple would like to see the registration and revalidation process regulated more strictly so that any gaps in a midwife’s training and experience are identified and addressed before they are able to practice unsupervised.
In 2013 the NMC introduced a process called ‘voluntary removal’ which allows a midwife who is subject to a fitness to practice allegation to apply to be removed permanently from the register without a full public hearing - if they admit that their fitness to practice is impaired and do not intend to continue practicing.
The midwife involved removed herself from the NMC’s register of Midwives, so the NMC had no jurisdiction to investigate her failings.
This decision by the midwife frustrated Rebecca and Edward’s search for answers.
However, as Sarah points out, the NMC states that voluntary removal will not be allowed where the allegations are so serious that public confidence in professional standards would suffer if they were not dealt with at a public hearing.
Rebecca and Edward believe that their case is exactly such a circumstance and that it is unfair to deny them a full investigation and deny the NMC an opportunity to learn lessons.
At the moment, if a baby dies after 24 weeks of pregnancy, before or during labour, the death is classified as a stillbirth. These cases are not currently subject to an inquest. Encouraging news came with health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement in November last year that all cases where babies die unexpectedly during childbirth will be independently investigated.
This step is welcomed because it means all stillbirths will now be independently investigated as a matter of course and this will reduce the pressure and onus on the family to have to take their own steps to try and find out what happened and why it happened.
At the conclusion of the legal case, King’s College Hospital issued a letter of apology to Rebecca and Edward, acknowledging that lessons needed to be learned following their investigations. The couple still feel however that there are many questions unanswered and had a coroner’s inquest or investigation been held, they would have been spared years of anguish and trauma.
Pictured above: Edward and Rebecca in happier times.
'Shoosmiths got me the rehab I needed and really helped with my family. They were fantastic throughout.'
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