A woman who sued her hospital for offering her an opportunity to have a natural, “personalized” birth — but ended up being restrained by nurses during labor to the point of suffering intense physical and emotional injuries — has won a major victory: $16 million in damages.
“It turned out the way I had hoped, and I’m thrilled about that, especially since so many other women have told me my verdict was the validation they never received,” plaintiff Caroline Malatesta, of Birmingham, Ala., tells Yahoo Beauty. “At the same time, it’s bittersweet, because litigation is conflict. I would’ve much rather had the hospital work with me… But my goal is to improve the care that other women receive.” Her attorney, Rip Andrews, praised Malatesta’s bravery throughout the trial, telling Yahoo Beauty, “Every now and then you have a client who makes you believe in what you do, and Caroline has done that for me.”
Malatesta was 32 years old and halfway through her fourth pregnancy when she switched hospitals, lured from one that had taken a typically medicalized approach to her three previous births — requiring that she go through labor on her back and have epidurals and episiotomies — to Brookwood Medical Center in Birmingham, which used a new marketing campaign that offered women “autonomy,” birthing tubs, and cushy suites, and promised to honor their birth plan.
But what Malatesta experienced on the night she gave birth to her son at Brookwood in 2012 could not have been further from the picture the hospital had laid out. Instead, she alleged in a lawsuit that went to trial on July 25, she was met with a staggering series of aggressive medical interventions — including being forced onto her back by nurses who held her son’s crowning head inside her for six minutes as they waited for a doctor to arrive. It left the mother of four (ages 10, 9, 6, and 4) with a rare and debilitating nerve injury, pudendal neuralgia, which causes her severe and chronic pain to this day — not to mention lingering psychological trauma for both Malatesta and her husband, J.T., an attorney.
“I’ve been left with a debilitating medical condition, my sex life is gone, I see a therapist, and I’m on medications both for pain and to ward off panic attacks,” Malatesta had told Yahoo in 2015, when she was in the midst of her lawsuit and eager to speak out about what she saw as the hospital’s “bait-and-switch” approach to maternity care. “It has turned our family life upside down.”
The family received some hefty validation with the conclusion of the trial on the evening on Aug. 5. That’s when a Jefferson County Circuit Court jury awarded them $16 million in damages after finding that Brookwood Women’s Center — which was called out in a recent local news story for handling other births in a similar fashion — violated the standard of care for labor and delivery and participated in “reckless misrepresentation of fact.”
A spokesperson for the hospital system, Brookwood Baptist Health, did not immediately respond to Yahoo Beauty’s request for comment. But the hospital did release the following statement to WBRC through spokesperson Kate Darden: “We are disappointed in the outcome of the case. Brookwood Baptist Medical Center strives for excellence in patient care and satisfaction, and we respectfully disagree with the jury’s verdict.”
According to birthing rights advocates, the award to Malatesta has huge potential to be a game-changer in the world of maternity care — particularly in the context of what has been recently dubbed “obstetric violence,” which may entail anything from being condescended to during labor to being forced or coerced into medical interventions, such as cesarean sections and episiotomies.
“This verdict is important because it has the potential to make medical providers see hurting or forcing a woman in labor as a serious liability risk,” Hermine Hayes-Klein, a lawyer with the advocacy organization Human Rights in Childbirth, tells Yahoo Beauty. And perceived risk of liability, rather than the well-being of the woman in labor, she notes, is sadly “the most powerful incentive” in cases like these. “So this verdict actually has the ability to make a difference.” Further, Hayes-Klein says, “This jury made a loud statement that obstetric violence is a violation of a woman’s legal rights.”
More and more women have been speaking out and taking various actions against such violations, including Kimberly Turbin of California, whose suit against her obstetrician for assault and battery after undergoing a forced episiotomy led her doctor to surrender his license in 2015, and New York and New Jersey women with ongoing suits against their obstetricians for allegedly bullying them into C-sections. Still, many women are afraid to share their birth stories. That’s because of what can be a standard reaction — “Your baby is fine. Why are you complaining?”
Cristen Pascucci, an advocate with Birth Monopoly and Improving Birth who was instrumental in these cases as well as Malatesta’s, has been dedicated to supporting women in the telling of their traumatic birth stories — most notably through the 2015 project “Exposing the Silence.” She spent two weeks in the courtroom with Malatesta during the recent trial and tells Yahoo Beauty that it was “emotional and dramatic and heartbreaking” to hear her testimony, and that “the hospital just really didn’t have a defense — other than trying to blame Caroline and coming up with reasons why she, rather than they, endangered her baby… But it was so clear-cut.”
Pascucci adds that, according to testimony at the trial, “The marketing department at Brookwood was tasked with beating the other hospital in town — sell more deliveries, basically — and that’s exactly what they did.” Doctors and nurses testified, she says, that they “weren’t really aware of the marketing campaign and what services were being marketed on their behalf.”
With this verdict, she says, “I really hope it makes hospitals sit up and pay attention.”
As for Malatesta, who must continue to live with the injuries she suffered during her son’s birth four years ago, she notes that she gained the courage to soldier on with her case from the many other women who came forward with their own horrific experiences. “When my story received media attention, it’s like the floodgates opened, and so many women started contacting me with the same stories of their mistreatment and in so many ways telling me that my lawsuit was validation for what happened to them,” she said as she got choked up in a Facebook live video with Birth Monopoly after the win. “And that’s what kept me going.”