Psychiatric harm in birth injury cases
27th February, 2019
In the case of YAH v Medway NHS Foundation Trust, the High Court awarded compensation in respect of psychiatric injuries suffered by a mother whose baby was born with cerebral palsy as a result of the Defendant Trust's negligence.
The Claimant was the mother of a baby who was born at Medway Maritime Hospital on 9 July 2012 via emergency caesarean section. The baby was delivered in a poor condition, required resuscitation and was later intubated on SCBU. The Claimant saw her daughter for the first time the following morning. She was surrounded by medical equipment and the Claimant was unable to hold or touch her. The baby was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral palsy for which the Defendant Trust had admitted liability on the basis that there had been a negligent delay in delivering the baby after the CTG trace demonstrated clear signs of distress. The Claimant sought to recover damages for psychiatric injuries which she claimed were associated with the birth.
Decision of the High Court
The Court found that the Claimant suffered an anxiety disorder shortly after the birth as a response to her experience at the time of the birth and afterwards, and she subsequently developed depression, which was largely triggered by a realisation as to the extent of her child’s brain damage. The Court held that such conditions combined in order to form a single indivisible mental disorder and that the difficulties which the Claimant experienced during the labour and the worry immediately thereafter as to whether her baby would survive, contributed to her psychiatric injury.
Importantly, the Court confirmed that it is settled law that, until birth, a baby is part of its mother, such that there is a single legal person. It follows that the mother will be regarded as a primary victim where she suffers personal injury as a result of negligence which occurs before the baby is born. Accordingly, in the present case, the Court held that the Claimant did not cease to be a primary victim when her baby was born and the fact that her psychiatric damage became manifest later in time, after the baby was born, did not alter her status. Indeed the Court held that her psychiatric disorder was “inexorably bound up” with her experiences in the delivery room and with her worry about her baby’s likelihood of survival in the first few hours/days of life. The Court also found that the causes of the Claimant’s mental disorder were closely linked to the Trust’s obstetric negligence just before the baby was born and the Defendant’s submissions, notably that the psychiatric injury was too remote from the admitted negligence to permit recovery of compensation, were rejected.
The Court further confirmed that as the Claimant was a primary victim, she was not required to demonstrate that her psychiatric injury occurred as a result of shock, this being a criterion which is unique to secondary victim claims.
The Judgment in YAH provides important clarification as to the position in respect of mothers who suffer adverse psychological reactions following the traumatic birth of their child which leads to its permanent injury. However, whilst it is now established that a mother who pursues a psychiatric injury claim in such circumstances may be entitled to recover damages as a primary victim, such claims will continue to merit careful investigation, particularly in relation to the precise trigger of the mother’s psychiatric problems.
The full Judgment can be accessed by clicking here.
Should you wish to discuss the above or how the High Court’s decision in YAH relates to your organisation, please contact a member of our Healthcare team.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.
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