Expert Lawyers Find NHS Trust Could Have Done More To Prevent Girl's 'Catastrophic' Brain Damage

Mum Speaks Of Relief At Successful Conclusion Of Nine-Year Battle For Justice


The mother of a nine-year-old girl who was born with catastrophic brain damage as a result of errors made by midwifery staff during her labour has spoken of her relief after a High Court Judge today (April 29) approved a care and rehabilitation package for her daughter.

Niamh Ridgwell, who will be 10 in May, has the severest of cerebral palsy as a result of her brain being starved of oxygen shortly before she was born at Basildon Hospital in May 2004. 

It has left her completely wheelchair dependent to the point of being unable to lift her head, suffering from epilepsy, functionally blind, unable to feed other than through a tube via jejunostomy, ongoing orthopaedic and renal problems and unable to communicate to any degree apart from cries, smiles and facial expressions with erratic sleep patterns and minimal levels of consciousness.

Niamh’s parents, Sandra and Peter Ridgwell, instructed medical law experts at Irwin Mitchell in 2005 to help Niamh gain access to a care and support package. However, Basildon & Thurrock Hospitals NHS Trust refused to agree an admission of liability leaving the family fearing they would never see justice and worse still, would never be able to fund appropriate care for Niamh’s future needs.

During the early stages of labour, Peter and Sandra phoned the delivery suite at Basildon Hospital from their home in Grays, Essex, on three occasions during the very early hours of a Monday morning during May 2004 due to an increased rate of contractions with constant pain. But they were advised repeatedly by the midwives Sandra should take pain killers and have a hot bath at home. 

Things got so bad that Niamh’s parents finally decided to go to the hospital and admission to the labour ward was at 3.35am. There were abnormal CTG readings immediately on arrival and at 4.16am the readings turned pathological with Niamh’s heart rate slowing.  However, it took a further 45 minutes for Niamh to be born at 4.55am via an emergency caesarean and she was in a very poor condition.

Post delivery tests confirmed that Niamh had suffered a feto-maternal haemorrhage and that Sandra had suffered a placental abruption. Expert evidence commissioned by Irwin Mitchell found that neither of these events caused the brain damage but left both mother and baby being more susceptible to suffering complications during labour.

The evidence found that if nurses had correctly advised Sandra to attend hospital immediately when she phoned with constant pain, Niamh could have been delivered up to two hours earlier, avoiding her brain being starved of oxygen.

The Trust always maintained that no damage was done at the end of labour but instead, all the damage was sustained before Sandra arrived at hospital at the time of the feto-maternal haemorrhage. Liability was disputed throughout but a settlement was reached a little over three weeks before the Trial was due to start at the High Court.

The Trust has now agreed to pay a settlement of over £1.7m for Niamh to compromise the case, which was approved at the High Court in London today. It is broken down as an £800k lump sum to fund specially adapted accommodation and reimburse previous care costs followed by annual payments of £90k for the rest of Niamh’s life to cover her specific care and rehabilitation needs. The settlement figure reflects Niamh’s short life expectancy and also a discount to reflect the risks of proceeding to Trial and losing.

Auriana Griffiths, is a Partner and medical law expert at Irwin Mitchell’s London office representing Niamh.

Expert Opinion
Niamh suffered catastrophic brain damage as a result of her brain being starved of oxygen during labour. This has left her needing round the clock care and unable to enjoy any real quality of life. It is one of the most severe cases I have come across and it is devastating to know it was preventable.

“This was a very difficult case to pursue as the Trust insisted that the feto-maternal haemorrhage Niamh suffered was the sole cause of the brain damage and therefore could not have been avoided. However, we remained determined to fight for justice for Niamh and obtained supportive expert evidence which argued that although there was no dispute that the feto-maternal haemorrhage occurred, it was not damaging but left Niamh more susceptible to the pressures of labour and less able to cope with periods of stress.

“The evidence we obtained showed that earlier delivery would have avoided the brain damage and Niamh would have been born healthy.

“The settlement approved today mans that a significant proportion of Niamh’s future care, rehabilitation and specialist equipment needs will be met for the rest of her life.”
Auriana Griffiths, Partner

Sandra added: “I had a healthy pregnancy with no complications and both my husband and I were so excited to be welcoming our first born child into the world. The advice was always to make contact with the delivery suite first before going into the hospital which is what I did. 

“It is NHS national policy to encourage mums in labour to stay at home on the basis that a detailed assessment is carried out by midwives over the phone to determine if a mum should remain at home or not. In this case, no assessment was carried out. When you are in labour you are very vulnerable and it is during this time that you rely on the advice and support of the medically trained hospital staff to assist you. There is no room for complacency at any stage during pregnancy and labour when risks to mother and baby are at their highest level.

“I would like to see all delivery suites manned by exceptionally experienced midwives providing the same level of service 24-hours a day, who record all telephone conversations and provide detailed file notes of each and every call including the advice given by the midwives to ensure accountability. Unless NHS trusts conform to this they should not encourage any woman to remain at home but to go to the hospital immediately at the start of labour.

“It is too late for our daughter and for us as a family but I would like to think that lessons can be learnt from this case by all parties concerned so that future parents and newborn children are not exposed to the same fate. 

“We have been fighting repeatedly for justice for our daughter during the last nine years and never gave up. Thankfully our persistence and that of our legal team at Irwin Mitchell has finally paid off and today’s hearing means we have at least peace of mind that Niamh’s future care needs will be largely met by the settlement. 

“In addition, we hope that there will be some level of accountability taken from this case and hope that all Trusts will now ensure that similar failings do not happen in the future.”


Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise relating to Cerebral Palsy claims