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What Is A Mother's Grief Worth?

How do you put a dollar value on grief?

A stillbirth is a tragedy. A baby’s life is cut short before it even begins, and the loss can tear a mother apart.

Now, some mothers going through that personal hell have legal recourse to seek damages for their suffering. In cases where stillbirth was not simply an unavoidable tragedy but the result of an error by hospital staff, New York mothers can now sue for malpractice.

The first few cases of malpractice suits related to stillbirths are making their way through New York’s courts, and judges are grappling with a tough question: just how much is a mother’s grief worth?

It seems crass to assign a dollar value to the life of a stillborn baby, but that’s just what those deciding these cases need to do. The New York Times reports on the progress of two cases that may set benchmarks for future malpractice suits.

The first case to be decided was that of a Brooklyn woman who lost her baby due to hospital errors. She was awarded $1 million in damages. Now, a Bronx woman is seeking a similar settlement. Lawyers for the hospital in that case are resisting, while the woman’s lawyers claim the first award set the bar for damages in these cases.

This sounds like a deeply technical legal issue, but at the heart of it are mothers who are struggling to come to terms with a terrible and preventable loss. One of them told the NYT:

The Brooklyn mother, Lucia Ferreira, now 39, said in an interview that at the hospital she had felt she did not matter as her pregnancy spiraled toward its horrifying end.

“The case helped me have a voice,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that, things would have been pushed under the rug.”

In 2004, a New York court changed the state’s position on cases like this. Previously, you couldn’t sue over a non-financial, non-physical injury. Then the courts decided that women who lost a baby due to hospital negligence deserved legal recourse even if the woman herself was not physically injured.

These cases are, blessedly, relatively rare. Seven years after that court finding, the first handful of them are being settled now. For the women affected by these rulings, however, the outcome of these cases will have a huge impact. Lawyers for the women in these cases hope that setting a high price on stillbirth malpractice cases will cause hospitals to be doubly vigilant in preventing these tragedies from occurring.

What do you think? How can the courts set a price on a mother’s grief after losing a baby?

Photo: Samat Jain

Coping with a stillbirth: causes, risk factors, and support for parents

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