Jaundice is a common medical condition occurring in recently born babies. More than 60% of infants experience jaundice after birth. Even untreated jaundice typically resolves after a few days or weeks, often from exposure to sunlight.
But newborn jaundice cannot be ignored by parents or doctors. When not properly monitored and managed, newborn jaundice can become a major health risk, leading to developmental delays, permanent injuries, and death.
Our lawyers handle medical malpractice cases when the pediatricians and nurses fail to properly treat jaundice throughout the country.
What Are Jaundice and Bilirubin?
Jaundice, whether in an adult or infant, occurs the bilirubin in the bloodstream is too high.
Bilirubin is a natural byproduct of red blood cell breakdown. Red blood cells in the body only have a lifespan of about 4 months. So the body is continuously breaking down and disposing of dead red blood cells. Bilirubin a waste product – a toxin, actually – left over from the breakdown of red blood cells. Bilirubin is normally filtered out of the blood primarily by the liver and a smaller amount excreted in the urine.
When the liver is working properly, only small levels of bilirubin will be left in the bloodstream. An infant’s liver can usually can manage enough bilirubin where there are no complications. But if the liver is not effectively filtering bilirubin, it will build up in the bloodstream. Jaundice is the result of high bilirubin levels in the blood that have a toxic effect on the body.
Usually, the problem is not diagnosing bilirubin. It usually results in the noticeable yellow in the eyes and skin. Most medical malpractice lawsuit are not failure to diagnose jaundice but failure to properly realize the risk and treat accordingly.
Infant Jaundice Is About the Liver
The occurrence of jaundice in adults is an indication that something is wrong with the liver. The reason that newborn babies frequently have jaundice after birth is that their livers are not fully developed and fully functioning when they are born.
During gestation, the mother filters bilirubin through the placenta. After childbirth, the baby’s liver has to take over that function and it frequently struggles to keep pace, especially in the first few days and weeks. This causes most newborn babies to have slightly elevated levels of bilirubin in their bloodstream and the bilirubin levels are often high enough to classify as jaundice.
Eventually, the baby’s liver usually starts to get caught up on bilirubin filtration and jaundice gradually resolves.
Can a Baby Die of Jaundice?
In a few rare cases, a newborn baby can die of jaundice. What happens is the baby’s liver is not able to catch up fast enough and the jaundice continues.
Prolonged infant jaundice or extremely severe jaundice can present serious health risks for the baby, including athetoid cerebral palsy, physical and cognitive injury, hearing loss, and death.
Proper Monitoring and Management of Newborn Jaundice
Your pediatrician is medically responsible for diligently monitoring and managing all cases of newborn jaundice. Once newborn jaundice is diagnosed its progression needs to be closely monitored to ensure that the baby’s liver appears to be slowly catching up.
Unless the jaundice is particularly severe, treatment is usually limited to exposing the baby to direct sunlight. If the jaundice is particularly severe or does not start to clear up on its own, however, there are other more invasive treatments available.
The problem is that pediatricians often fail to monitor newborn jaundice as closely as they should. Infant jaundice is so common and so frequently benign that doctors have a tendency to ignore it. So they don’t always monitor the development of what can lead to a medical emergency as closely as they should. This leads to hard to the child and is the fact pattern in too many medical malpractice lawsuits. Because untreated jaundice can quickly morph from relatively benign to severe jaundice.
As long as jaundice is properly monitored for signs of abnormal progression doctors can almost always prevent it from causing any major harm to the baby. Exposure to phototherapy lights and/or emergency blood transfusions are usually very effective methods for treating serious infant jaundice.
The key is diagnosing jaundice and then distinguishing the few potentially dangerous cases of infant jaundice from all the other thousands of normal cases. Although very uncommon, untreated jaundice can lead to a very serious and life-threatening brain condition called kernicterus.
Recent Newborn Jaundice Settlements and Verdicts
Below a few settlements and verdicts in recent medical malpractice cases involving a failure to properly diagnose, monitor or treat infant jaundice.
You cannot assume the verdict or settlement payout in your child’s medical negligence case will be the same even if the facts are similar. But there is no question that the trial and settlement compensation in untreated jaundice cases can be extremely high because the injuries can extreme.
- C.M.G. v. Banner Health (Colorado 2022) $27.6 million: Infant born at 37 weeks and at risk for hypoglycemia, reportedly was diagnosed with e. coli sepsis, meningitis, metabolic acidosis, and developed jaundice a few days after her birth, complicated by vacuum assistance and a diabetic mother. The baby sustained permanent impairments including speech and language delays, disability, seizures, hearing loss, mental anguish, and other developmental delays.
- Rodriguez v. NYCHHC (New York 2018) $6 million: A baby was at increased risk of infant jaundice because of a blood type incompatibility with his mother. Despite this risk, the baby was not immediately put in the nursery or NICU but left in the room with the mother. When his bilirubin levels were eventually checked sometime later they were dangerously high and an emergency blood transfusion was ordered. During the emergency transfusion, the baby suffered cardiac arrest and brain injury from oxygen deprivation. The injury left him cognitively impaired and unable to talk. The jury in Queens County found the hospital negligent in failing to monitor the baby and awarded $6,000,000.
- Smalls v. Ouachita Valley Family Med. (Arkansas 2017) $46.5 million: doctors at a local family medical practice failed to properly monitor and manage severe newborn jaundice that eventually developed into kernicterus causing severe brain damage. Specifically, a blood test on the infant indicated dangerously high bilirubin levels in the blood. But the test results were misinterpreted so phototherapy treatment was never done. The jury found the doctors 85% negligent and the hospital 15% negligent and awarded a total of $46.5 million.
- Turner v. NYCHHA (New York 2008) $4 million: Hospital negligently failed to timely address a very significant elevation of bilirubin suffered by the baby who was born prematurely at 34 weeks. Initial signs of jaundice were treated on Day 2 with phototherapy. When jaundice later returned days later, it was largely ignored. As a result of the failure to timely treat the jaundice when it returned the baby suffered respiratory acidosis and brain damage. Plaintiff’s expert testified that phototherapy should have been done when the jaundice returned. The jury awarded $4 million in damages.
- Frederick v. Howard (Wisconsin 2007) $7.9 million: Baby was born normal but at 40 hours old he was noted to be slightly jaundiced. 5 hours later his condition was worsened to moderately jaundiced. Despite signs that he was even more jaundiced the following day he was released home from the hospital with no treatment and scheduled for follow-up later in the week. Following discharge, the mother called the doctor’s office
to report that the jaundice seemed to be worse and the baby was not feeding. She was told not to worry and come in for the scheduled visit. When she eventually brought the baby in he had lost 20% of his body weight and was very jaundiced. A blood test was done to check his bilirubin levels. When the test results came back 6 hours later, it showed dangerously high bilirubin levels and the doctor told the mother to go to the emergency room immediately. The baby’s severe jaundice progressed into kernicterus and caused permanent brain damage. The jury awarded almost $8 million.
Contact Miller & Zois About Newborn Jaundice
If you believe your doctors failed to monitor or manage your baby’s newborn jaundice and it caused injury, contact our newborn jaundice lawyers at Miller & Zois. Call 800-553-8082 or select here for a free consultation.