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Doctor's unwarranted forceps intervention caused severe brain damage: court

TORONTO – An experienced obstetrician whose unwarranted forceps intervention during labour led to the birth of a child with catastrophic brain injuries was indeed negligent, Ontario’s top court ruled Wednesday.

In upholding a lower court ruling and damages award, the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed Dr. Peter Potts fell below the required standard of care in delivering Matthew MacGregor 13 years ago.

It was, the court found, a “difficult” case with tragic results for all concerned.

“The consequences of a medical misfortune for the person injured and often their families can be devastating and life-altering,” Justice James MacPherson wrote for the court.

“The same can be true for the medical professional who may have caused the injury.”

In January 1999, Laura MacGregor was in labour with her second child at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont., when Potts attempted a forceps delivery even though, the trial judge found, there was no compelling need to do so.

Potts claimed at trial that he decided on a forceps delivery because of the position of the fetus.

But neither MacGregor nor Matthew were in any distress at the time and the mother could have been left to push, the lower court found.

In addition, the trial judge found Potts negligent in how he performed the forceps procedure, which resulted in compression of the umbilical cord and oxygen starvation for Matthew, who was born severely brain-damaged after an emergency caesarean.

The court also found Potts used the forceps without getting proper consent from MacGregor.

Matthew, now 13 years old, will always be seriously disabled and require constant care, and is not expected to live much beyond age 32, according to court documents.

The MacGregor family successfully sued Potts for negligence, winning a damages award of $2.8 million and roughly another $250,000 per year to cover the costs of caring for Matthew.

Potts is an experienced obstetrician with a busy obstetrical practice who delivered approximately 300-400 babies per year. He had no adverse findings against him, according to the Ontario’s doctor-regulation body.

In finding against Potts, the trial judge called him “very sloppy” in his charting, and found his “credibility was shaken in several instances.”

Still, MacPherson referred to Potts as “a fine professional man” who had devoted his life to the care of mothers and children.

At the same time, the justice wrote, the MacGregor family “must endure and respond forever” to Matthew’s injuries and precarious situation.

“In this sad context, a judge can – and I do – express my genuine sympathy to the MacGregor family and to Dr. Potts,” MacPherson said.

The Appeal Court also rejected the MacGregors’ cross-claim for more money to cover Matthew’s future care.

“There is nothing in the record to suggest that, through communication, flexibility and co-operation, the parties cannot make sensible adjustments to the delivery of future care to Matthew,” the court decided.

The court did award the MacGregors $100,000 in costs.