The death of a baby – the economic realities

This post was authored by Michael Sanders and posted to The Eye Opener on June 6th, 2011.

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I recently wrote a blog about the grief that parents suffer when they lose an unborn child. At the risk of sounding crass, I want to now discuss the economics of lawsuits involving the death of an unborn child. For those contemplating taking legal action for the loss of their child, I hope this provides some useful information for you to consider.

Maryland courts have carved out specific rules for when an unborn child is considered a person capable of recovering damages in the event of death. The primary rule is that if a baby is actually born alive, no matter at what gestational age, that baby is considered a person with legal rights. So, if a 20-week baby is born alive and then dies one minute later, that baby is considered a “person,” and a lawsuit can be filed on behalf of the estate for that baby’s pain and suffering, otherwise known as a Survival Action.

(This leads to an interesting question – does a fetus feel pain? See Related Links below). The parents of the unborn child can also file what is known as a Wrongful Death action for their own economic and non-economic damages resulting from the death of their baby, primarily their grief and emotional loss over the death of their child. Survival actions and Wrongful Death actions are two separate claims, although they are usually pursued in the same lawsuit.

When a baby dies before birth, however, another question has to be asked: was the baby viable or not? Viability means that a baby is able to live outside the womb, even though he or she may require serious medical intervention. The current thinking is that babies are viable at around 22 weeks. The courts have made the rule that if an unborn child dies before the age of viability, that baby is not yet a “person” and has no legal rights. There can be no Survival Action and there can be no Wrongful Death action. If, however, the baby has reached the age of viability, then the baby is considered “a person” with legal rights, even if the baby was never born alive. Confusing? Yes it is.

The Maryland Courts were following the ruling in Roe v. Wade that a mother had a constitutional right to abort a non-viable baby. Therefore, a non-viable baby was not legally considered a person. If the baby was not a person, then no lawsuit could be filed on behalf of the estate of that baby, nor could the parents file a wrongful death action. So in order for a Survival Action or a Wrongful Death action to lie for an unborn baby, that baby has to have reached at least 22 weeks of gestation.

To make things even more confusing, the Maryland courts have carved out an exception to the above rules. Let’s consider the example of a non-viable baby (i.e., less than 22 weeks gestation) who dies before birth as a result of someone else’s negligence that injures the mother.

A common situation occurs when the mother (let’s say she’s 8 weeks pregnant) is injured in a car accident and suffers a miscarriage as a result. Looking at the above rules, one would think that no claim is allowed. However, the courts have said not so fast. In this circumstance, while the mother cannot recover for the grief of losing her child (because the child is non-viable and, therefore, not legally a person), she can recover for similar damages, including:

  • The depression, anguish, and grief caused by the termination of the pregnancy;
  • The manner in which the pregnancy was terminated;
  • Having to carry a baby which was killed by someone else’s tortious conduct; and
  • Having to witness the stillborn child or the fetal tissue that was to be her child.

I realize this itemization of damages sounds awfully close to the damages permitted in a Wrongful Death action – the very damages that are not allowed in the case of a non-viable baby. It is confusing, to say the least. The courts are trying to find a way to compensate a woman who is injured and loses her non-viable baby as a result of someone else’s negligence, while remaining true to prior precedent in this state that there is no Wrongful Death action allowed in the case of a non-viable baby.

Lastly, keep in mind that Maryland’s cap on non-economic damages applies to cases involving the death of an unborn baby. Economic damages (medical bills, lost wages) are usually very small in such cases. There are no lost wages because we’re talking about a baby, and the medical bills are usually small.

The value of these cases is in the emotional pain and suffering of the parents, and the physical pain and suffering of the baby (assuming a viable baby). Under Maryland law, the maximum allowable recovery for such a claim is $868,750 in a medical negligence action (assuming Mom and Dad both file a wrongful death action).

Under the hypothetical of the mother seeking recovery for the loss of a non-viable baby, the maximum allowable recovery is $695,000 if the allegation is medical negligence, and $755,000 if the allegation is non-medical negligence. (The Maryland Legislature has for some strange reason imposed different caps depending on whether the negligence is medical or non-medical, e.g., a car accident).

As for the question of whether an unborn child feels pain, please click on the link below for a blog by Brian Nash on this very issue.

Related Nash and Associates Links

Does a fetus feel pain

Hysteria over malpractice “crisis”

 

 

 

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