Placental Separation: When It's the Doctor's Fault and What You Can Do

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What you need to know

Finding out you are pregnant and expecting a baby should be a joyous occasion. It's a time to make plans for the future and imagine who your new little one will end up growing to be. Unfortunately, however, this isn't always the case. Sometimes medical issues happen during the pregnancy and/or birth that can catapult you into a time of confusion, disbelief and fear. While not all issues that can come up in a pregnancy or during a birth are the fault of a health care provider, sometimes they are. If you've experienced a placental separation and you or your child have suffered as a result, you may have some legal options. Here's an overview of what placental separation is, how it can happen and what to do if you think it may be the doctor's fault.

What is placental separation?

Placental separation -- commonly called placental abruption -- basically means that the placenta has separated from the wall of the uterus. During a normal pregnancy, the placenta attaches to the wall of the uterus to bring in the nutrients and oxygen the baby needs from the mother and to take out any waste so that the mother's body can eliminate it. The placenta usually attaches to the side walls of the uterus, but in some cases, it attaches to the bottom where the cervix, which is called placenta previa, and will lead to a hemorrhage if left untreated. Once the baby has been born, the placenta usually detaches on its own within a half-hour or so and is expelled through the vaginal canal.

However, if the placenta detaches prematurely, it can be life-threatening for both the mother and the baby. While it can happen at any time, it is most common in the last trimester when the uterus is taking up most of the abdominal cavity and is more at risk for suffering trauma do to an impact or fall.

While vaginal bleeding may be the most recognized sign of a placental separation, the amount of bleeding can vary tremendously and should not be relied upon as the only indication of an issue. Even small amounts of blood could be a sign of a placental separation. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain in the stomach
  • Pain the back
  • Tenderness in the uterine area
  • Contractions, which may be very frequent and feel different from the Braxton-Hicks contractions that are common in late pregnancy
  • Bleeding, even in small amounts, which is usually referred to as spotting

If a placental separation has occurred, it is vital that it be recognized and treated as quickly as possible, which usually means an emergency cesarean section. Possible complications associated with a placental separation include significant blood loss for the mother, which may cause shock and require blood transfusions, organ failure and an emergency hysterectomy or even death if the bleeding cannot be stopped. The baby may have been limited in the amount of oxygen and nutrients it was able to get while in utero -- particularly in the case of a slow-leaking chronic abruption -- which could result in poor growth or even a premature or stillborn child.

When is it the fault of the doctor?

In most medical malpractice cases involving a placental separation, the issue revolves around the doctor failing to diagnose and treat it in a timely manner or a doctor who did not appropriately manage a patient's risk factors. All health care providers must meet a certain standard of care that is set at the state level, including OB/GYNs. This includes being able to recognize factors that may put a mother at a higher risk of placental separation, making sure any and all relevant tests are administered, that the patient is appropriately monitored and that the proper treatment protocols are followed. For example, some possible factors that raise a mother's risk of placental separation include:

  • A previous abruption in another pregnancy that wasn't caused by trauma
  • Smoking
  • Illicit drug use
  • High blood pressure
  • A multiple pregnancy
  • Advanced maternal age
  • Premature rupture of the membranes
  • Uterine infection
  • Trauma to the abdomen

There may also be some rare instances where medical error or mistake during a procedure itself ends up causing a placental separation. If a doctor is aware of a history of previous placental abruption or another combination of any of the above factors and doesn't take steps to mitigate these or fails to monitor the patient appropriately, it could be grounds for a medical malpractice suit.

What are your legal options?

If you believe that you suffered a placental separation because of a medical error or that your health care provider failed to catch the separation when they should have, you may be able to seek compensation through the courts under a medical malpractice case. It's important to understand that how a case like this is handled depends heavily on the exact circumstances and that every situation is different. To learn more about your legal options and what compensation you may have a right to, contact Weltchek, Mallahan and Weltchek to speak with an experienced attorney who can discuss your case with you and give you more information.

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