Cerebral Palsy: Causes, Symptoms, and Legal Considerations

Legal recourse for birth injuries resulting in cerebral palsy

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on November 8, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Peter M. Villari

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“If a child is diagnosed at birth with cerebral palsy, it’s a 24/7 job for the parents or parents and siblings serving as that child’s caregivers,” says Peter Villari, a medical malpractice attorney in Philadelphia who focuses on birth injury law.

“Most caregivers only have family resources. Sadly, some don’t have even that—the brothers, sisters, mothers, or fathers who can help them and give them respite to care for their child.”

The Emotional and Financial Impacts of Birth Injuries

On top of the struggle to provide adequate care and quality of life, Villari says that “it’s often a horrible fight” for families to get the available insurance and government benefits.

“If we decide to take a birth injury case and our legal services are engaged, we often spend a few months reviewing and making sure that they have gotten the benefits they deserve,” says Villari.

However, even when families can get the available benefits, they often aren’t enough to cover life care costs.

“Our system is not very caring for parents of children with special needs,” says Villari. “I think the public has a misperception that children with special needs and their parents can get federal or state benefits through Medicare or Medicaid. The reality is that the system is really stacked against them in terms of getting the care they need.”

When a child’s cerebral palsy results from brain damage due to preventable medical errors, families may have recourse through a medical malpractice lawsuit against responsible healthcare professionals.

Though an extremely small number of cases per year, Villari and other attorneys specializing in birth injury cases help families recover financial compensation for their child’s injuries and lifelong care.

What I find with almost every parent is that they want to know, when they pass away, that their child will be cared for. As much as they love their child, providing care is a tremendous burden that other family members frequently can’t take over. So, parents worry.

Peter M. Villari

What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term for a set of movement disorders that impact a person’s ability to move and maintain posture and balance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s the most common motor disability in childhood.

What Are the Causes of Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is often caused by abnormalities in the child’s brain development in the womb. This is known as congenital cerebral palsy. Risk factors for congenital CP include:

  • Premature birth;
  • Low birth weight;
  • Infections during pregnancy;
  • Untreated severe jaundice;
  • Giving birth to multiple children.

Cerebral palsy may also result from brain damage during prenatal care, the delivery process, or the child’s first few years of life. Common birth injuries impacting the brain include:

  • Hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy: lack of oxygen (hypoxia) or blood flow (ischemia) to the brain;
  • Head injuries due to improper use of medical instruments or medical procedures.

What Are the Types of Cerebral Palsy?

There are four common types of CP, depending on which part of the brain is affected:

  1. Spastic cerebral palsy: People have increased muscle tone, resulting in stiff muscles and difficulty with muscle movement. Spasticity can occur in different parts of the body and has specific medical labels for each area:
    • Spastic diplegia occurs mainly in the legs;
    • Spastic hemiplegia affects only one side of the body; and
    • Spastic quadriplegia, the most severe kind, affects all limbs, the trunk, and the face.
  2. Ataxic cerebral palsy: People have coordination, balance, and unsteady walking issues.
  3. Dyskinetic cerebral palsy: Also called athetoid CP, people have difficulty with motor skills and controlling the movement of their limbs, hands, and feet. Motion may be slow or jerky.
  4. Mixed symptoms of cerebral palsy: Different types of CP are combined. According to the CDC, spastic-dyskinetic is the most common type of mixed cerebral palsy.

What Are the Signs of Cerebral Palsy?

There are many potential signs of cerebral palsy, depending on the area of the brain affected, the type of CP, and your child’s age and developmental milestones. Indicators include:

  • Muscle stiffness or floppiness;
  • Involuntary movements;
  • Difficulty speaking;
  • Excessive drooling;
  • Incontinence;
  • Intellectual disabilities;
  • Epilepsy;
  • Stiff legs or a constant scissoring or crossing motion;
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills or other motor functions;
  • Difficulty raising their hand to their face or bringing their hands together.

If you suspect that your child may have cerebral palsy, it’s imperative to seek medical care if you haven’t already.

Villari emphasizes that brain injuries due to medical negligence constitute a very small number of birth injury cases yearly—and reputable attorneys will not pursue a frivolous claim.

Therefore, during the initial consultation, a lawyer will conduct an extensive interview to gather information about the child and what happened. If the lawyer determines that there is a legal case, they will consult with medical experts regarding the diagnosis and presence of medical negligence.

In short, it’s a highly complex process to evaluate a birth injury claim, involving both legal and medical expertise. Lawyers accept very few cases out of the ones they consider. If you’re considering legal action, the upshot is to seek the professional opinion of experienced birth injury lawyers as soon as possible.

Keep in mind that just because a lawyer declines your case doesn’t necessarily mean you have no case—it could mean they are too heavily loaded to take an additional client. It’s worth speaking with a couple of lawyers in that case to clarify whether you have a claim.

Compensation and Damages

“What I find with almost every parent is that they want to know, when they pass away, that their child will be cared for. As much as they love their child, providing care is a tremendous burden that other family members frequently can’t take over. So, parents worry:

  • Who’s going to take care of my child if I die?
  • What will the child need throughout life—wheelchairs, special transportation, special housing, physical therapy?
  • Will the child need to be cared for constantly in a special home?
  • What will it cost?

“And as you might expect, it costs many millions of dollars to care for one of these children, and government benefits just don’t cut it.”

Compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit or negotiated settlement aims to provide families with the financial means to cover their child’s care for life.

Find an Experienced Medical Malpractice Attorney

Begin your search for an experienced birth injury lawyer in your area with the Super Lawyers’ directory. To learn more about this legal area, see our overview of birth injury law and related content on medical malpractice.

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