What Is a Wrongful Life Lawsuit?

Wrongful life lawsuits are controversial, but they exist to compensate children born as a result of a medical professional's negligence.

Wrongful life lawsuits are somewhat controversial, but courts have recognized the right of a (often severely disabled) child to bring these kinds of cases, typically through a parent or guardian as legal representative. Here's what to know:

  • The plaintiff in a wrongful life lawsuit usually argues that medical malpractice led to a birth that wouldn't have taken place if not for a medical professional's mistake.
  • A wrongful life lawsuit (typically brought by or on behalf of the child who was born) differs from a "wrongful birth" case (usually filed by a parent).
  • The types of compensation ("damages" in legalese) available in a wrongful life lawsuit are usually limited to the economic effects of the child's birth; non-economic damages like "pain and suffering" usually aren't an option.

What Is "Wrongful Life"?

A wrongful life claim is usually categorized as a type (or an offshoot) of a medical malpractice lawsuit. It alleges that a medical professional's negligence allowed the plaintiff to be born with medical complications. Wrongful life lawsuits arise most often when a child is born with a serious genetic defect or congenital disorder.

A wrongful life lawsuit is different from a traditional medical malpractice case because the plaintiff isn't claiming that the health care provider's mistake caused the medical problem. Instead, they contend that if there was no medical error—here, the failure to identify the complication and/or to adequately inform the parent(s) of that complication—the birth would have never occurred.

(In a different context, "wrongful life" can sometimes refer to situations where medical professionals save someone's life even though the patient has documented contrary wishes. For example, a patient might have a do-not-resuscitate order or a living will that says medical professionals shall not take certain measures to save the person's life in certain situations, but a provider resuscitates the patient despite those instructions. This article focuses on birth-related "wrongful life" claims.)

Who Can Bring a Wrongful Life Claim?

Usually, only the child who was born can bring a wrongful life claim over a specific health care provider's error. Of course, since these cases are often brought soon after a birth, a wrongful life lawsuit is typically brought on behalf of a child, usually by a parent(s) or legal guardian as the child's legal representative. If the parents want to bring suit, they will usually bring what's known as a "wrongful birth" lawsuit instead.

Wrongful Life or Wrongful Birth?

Wrongful life lawsuits are not the same as wrongful birth lawsuits. Although state law dictates exactly how wrongful birth and wrongful life lawsuits work, the main difference is usually who is bringing the case. But the legal arguments between these two causes of action are similar, as are the types of recoverable compensation.

Who Can I Sue in a Wrongful Birth or Wrongful Life Lawsuit?

Almost any medical professional (and usually their employer) are potential defendants in a wrongful life civil lawsuit. This includes:

  • doctors
  • nurses
  • genetic counselors
  • obstetricians
  • midwives
  • laboratory technicians
  • hospitals, clinics, and other medical providers

Who you sue depends mostly on who played a role in the wrongful life. For instance, let's say a laboratory and its staff properly carried out a prenatal test, but there's misdiagnosis by the doctor. In this scenario, you'll probably sue the doctor, but not the laboratory technician. But if the doctor properly interpreted the test results provided, after the laboratory technician tested the wrong sample, then the plaintiff will more likely sue the laboratory technician instead.

A key concern here is who might have resources to pay out a potential medical malpractice settlement or trial award. Most doctors will have some sort of medical malpractice liability insurance in place to cover a malpractice lawsuit. On the other hand, a laboratory technician usually won't have malpractice insurance coverage, but their employer probably will. So if the laboratory technician made a mistake that led to a wrongful life or birth case, the plaintiff might sue the laboratory technician's employer (i.e. the hospital).

Another reason to sue the employer of the medical professional could be if the plaintiff seeks money in excess of what the medical professional has. Maybe the doctor's medical malpractice insurance coverage lapsed. Or perhaps policy limits aren't enough to properly compensate the plaintiff. Either way, the plaintiff could bring in additional defendants with additional resources.

What Do I Need to Prove In a Wrongful Life Lawsuit?

In most states, a wrongful life plaintiff can assert a variety of potential arguments, such as:

  • a medical professional did not inform the parents of the potential risks facing the unborn child
  • a medical professional was negligent when carrying out or interpreting the results of a prenatal test, and/or
  • the results of the prenatal tests were not properly communicated or explained to the parents.

Proving a wrongful life case probably means:

What Kind of Compensation Is Possible In a Wrongful Life Claim?

A plaintiff that successfully brings a wrongful life claim could receive compensation ("medical malpractice damages" in the language of the law) for:

  • medical bills paid to treat the birth defect or other birth injury
  • expenses to accommodate the child's condition, including special care and education
  • any other financial costs that are a result of the child being born with a disability or other medical challenge

One category of damages that's usually not available in a wrongful life lawsuit is compensation for the child's mental and physical "pain and suffering." Learn more about pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases.

Have More Questions About Wrongful Life Lawsuits?

If you'd like to learn more about how wrongful life or wrongful birth claims work in your state, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced legal professional. Learn more about how much a medical malpractice lawyer might cost, and your chances of bringing a successful case. And if you're ready to reach out now, you can use the features on this page to connect with a lawyer in your area.

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