A recent decision from the Alabama Supreme Court allows a woman to proceed forward with a wrongful death suit against her obstetrician after suffering a miscarriage. While the decision has rocked a few boats, the Court only affirmed existing laws that allow a person to sue for the wrongful death of an unborn child.
Let’s Check the Facts
Two days after finding out she was pregnant, Kimberly Stinnett experienced abdominal cramping and fever. After an evaluation that included ultrasound, an obstetrician determined that Stinnett, based on the findings from the evaluation and Stinnett’s prior medical history, was experiencing an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg attaches itself in a place other than inside the uterus, which makes it impossible for a fetus to develop.
The obstetrician performed a dilation and curettage, commonly referred to as a “D&C”, which is a surgical procedure used to determine whether a pregnancy is intrauterine (within the uterus) or ectopic. Stinnett testified that the obstetrician told her, as a result of that surgical procedure, the pregnancy wasn’t ectopic, but that she believed a miscarriage had taken place. The obstetrician, however, testified that she still had a strong suspicion that the pregnancy was ectopic and therefore ordered a drug commonly used to treat ectopic pregnancy. The drug is intended to cause the end of pregnancy and was administered to Stinnett.
Stinnett attended a follow up appointment, in which she saw her original doctor. A follow-up ultrasound showed that Stinnett was having a failing intrauterine pregnancy, possibly as a result of the drug the previous obstetrician had given her. Several weeks later, Stinnett suffered a miscarriage.
Stinnett brought suit against the obstetrician and claimed:
- Medical negligence for performing the D&C and administering the drug,
- That because her pregnancy was not ectopic, the D&C should not have been performed nor should the drug should have been administered, and
- That the obstetrician’s actions violated the applicable standards of care and proximately caused the loss of her baby.
In addition to her medical malpractice claims, Stinnett claimed wrongful death of her unborn fetus under Alabama’s wrongful death of a minor statute. The personal injury claims stemming from the medical malpractice suit were allowed to go forward, but the lower court dismissed the wrongful death portion of the suit. Stinnett appealed.
Why Did the Alabama Supreme Court Allow the Wrongful Death Claim to Move Forward?
Among other arguments, the obstetrician’s main argument rested on the idea that the wrongful death of a minor statute didn’t apply to her due to an exemption within another Alabama statute limiting criminal liability for licensed physicians who, through mistake or unintentional error, caused the death of a previable fetus. The argument rested on the idea that if criminal liability was exempted, so too should civil liability.
The lower court agreed, but the Alabama Supreme Court ruled otherwise, stating, “[I]t simply does not follow that a person not subject to criminal punishment under the Homicide Act should not face tort liability under the Wrongful Death Act”. The high court found doing so would, essentially, defeat the purpose (to prevent homicides) of allowing wrongful-death claims based on negligence in the first place.
The court remanded the wrongful death claim back down to the lower court, which means Stinnett has a chance to argue it in front of a jury.
Will She Win?
This case can appear a bit convoluted because it involves both wrongful death, as well as medical malpractice, but they essentially coincide with each other. Wrongful death suits are brought when a person dies due to the negligence or misconduct of another. In order to bring a successful wrongful death cause of action, Stinnett will need to prove:
- The death of a human being,
- Was caused by the obstetrician’s negligence (or intent to cause harm), and
- That Stinnett is suffering monetary injury as a result of the death of her fetus (think losing future income from a spouse).
Alabama law allows wrongful death suits on behalf of previable fetuses, so Stinnett will have no problem proving the first element; it’s the other two elements that will be harder to prove.
Medical malpractice is one circumstance a plaintiff can use to prove a wrongful death claim. If Stinnett can prove that the obstetrician acted negligently in a way that another competent obstetrician in similar circumstances would not have acted, then she’d have a good argument for medical malpractice.
Remember when I said Stinnett filed suit for medical negligence and wrongful death? Even though the wrongful death suit was originally dismissed, the personal injury claims proceeded forward and a jury found in favor of the obstetrician. What does that mean? That the doctor wasn’t liable, which implies she followed the appropriate standard of care. If that’s the case, then Stinnett won’t have much luck proving a wrongful death claim.
The Alabama Supreme Court noted in their decision that it wasn’t clear whether the jury’s decision rested on the obstetrician’s standard of care or whether it rested on the theory that Stinnett didn’t suffer any damages. For those reasons, Stinnett has the option to proceed forward and, if she chooses to, she’ll need to prove both negligence with respect to the standard of care and that she suffered monetary injury.