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Court Says Mother Can Sue for Childbirth Stress

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A “birthing mother” has the right to sue her doctor for emotional stress when her child is injured during delivery, a state appellate court in San Diego ruled Monday, expanding liability in a controversial field of law.

Ruling in the case of an Escondido woman whose daughter was left a quadriplegic at birth, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled, 2 to 1, that, if a doctor’s negligence leads to physical injuries to the baby, the mother may seek to recover for the emotional trauma caused by the injury. A dissenting judge said he feared “nearly limitless” liability.

Lawyers for Michelle Anisodon, 34, whose daughter, Jennifer Guertin, was injured at birth five years ago at Mercy Hospital in San Diego, welcomed the ruling. “We feel this is a victory for the parents of disabled children,” New Jersey attorney Paul Jackson said.

Anisodon, who said that taking care of Jennifer is a full-time job, added that she gets by on monthly welfare checks. Referring to her daughter, she said, “She’s going to be stuck with this for the rest of her life. It’s something she’ll never be able to change. It will help if we can maybe get some money out of this. We’ll maybe be able to get somewhere.”

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Jeff Barton, an attorney for one of the several doctors in the case, said a further appeal, to the California Supreme Court, was possible.

Jennifer was born May 11, 1986, by Cesarean section. According to the lawsuit, an “improper uterine incision” caused Jennifer’s head to be trapped, and doctors used too much force in pulling her out of the womb, leaving her a spastic quadriplegic.

Anisodon brought suit in San Diego Superior Court, seeking an unspecified sum. But the case was dismissed, and her lawyers appealed.

In 1968, the California Supreme Court opened a new field of law by deciding that someone who suffered emotional distress from physical injury to someone else could sue for damages. Fearing a flood of cases from people who might be faking distress claims, the courts since have tightly limited the kinds of suits that fit into that category.

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In its ruling Monday, the 4th District court said that a mother whose child is damaged at birth fits into the narrow category.

A mother and child at birth are a special “family unit” receiving “joint treatment,” so it’s understandable that a physical injury to the baby might lead to severe emotional harm to the mother, said Justice Richard Huffman. Justice Gilbert Nares concurred.

But Justice Daniel J. Kremer dissented, saying a mother’s worsened emotional state is simply not enough to allow a lawsuit to go forward.

“Though few circumstances, if any, cause more heartbreak than a needlessly damaged infant, the law does not establish recovery based on grief alone,” Kremer said.

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