Case study: failure to spot pregnancy in young mother with brain tumour
We acted on behalf of a young mother who had an inoperable, terminal brain tumour which she was undergoing treatment for. She had told the hospital doctors who were treating her that she thought she might be pregnant several times, however they relied on a single, negative urine pregnancy test on the day she was admitted to hospital. The doctors failed to consider that, in the early stages of pregnancy, a test can be a ‘false’ negative, and so it was never repeated and no blood test was undertaken either.
The young woman had brain surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. When she told doctors that she still felt as if she was pregnant, she was just told her that her weight gain was due to the steroids she was on and her other symptoms were just part of her illness.
It was not until she was 23 weeks pregnant that her consultant examined her abdomen and felt a baby moving.
Knowing that she was dying, the young mother and her husband were devastated at this news, and said that if the pregnancy had been detected early, they would have opted for termination.
The woman’s cancer treatment had to be put on hold until the baby was born; a terrible experience for our client, as there was the risk that the baby could be born deformed or suffer later in life as a result of being exposed to chemotherapy in the womb. Because of the deterioration of her condition, our client never really bonded with the baby and her husband was left to support the child with help from family and paid support. After our client passed away, her husband continued with the claim she had started.
The health trust admitted liability at an early stage, apologising for the error and confirming that it had changed its practice following this case so that it would not just rely on one simple pregnancy test in future.
Our Medical Negligence team negotiated with the defendants that they would not deny a breach of their duty of care in the future if the child brought a claim because of damage they might have suffered in the womb. After agreeing the wording of this agreement, we pressed for an offer of settlement and negotiated up from there to reach a fair out of court settlement of £58,000.
This settlement covered the mother’s physical and mental suffering and the potential effect on her prognosis, plus the fact that the couple had been denied the right to decide the size of their family and various out-of-pocket expenses, including equipment purchased and the cost of employing childcare in the early days.
Crucially, it was agreed that the child would retain all her rights to bring her own claim if, at any stage in the future, she developed an illness that could be shown to be due to exposure to toxic drugs while she was in her mother’s womb.
This was not a ‘wrongful birth’ case by the current definition given in the law, as the child was born healthy. We seriously considered whether it would be practical to challenge the current law, but as this would have inevitably meant appeals to the Supreme Court and possibly the European Court of Justice, it was decided that it would be better not to put the woman’s family through the strain of a lengthy legal battle.