Largest malpractice settlement from AZ: $31 million after birth injury

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published November 30, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A jury awarded $31 million after a baby experienced oxygen deprivation during birth.

  • This is the largest medical malpractice award out of Arizona.

  • Lawyers argued that the hospital administered too much Pitocin during the birth.

After a 16-day trial, a jury in Maricopa County, AZ, found that Banner Health was at fault for a newborn’s oxygen deprivation. The $31 million award is considered the largest in the state’s history. The malpractice case was filed by Krystle Griepentrog. On June 1, 2014, Griepentrog gave birth to her son Greyson at Phoenix’s Banner-University Medical Center, then called Banner Good Samaritan.[]

 According to her legal team, Griepentrog received Pitocin during labor. Greyson was experiencing oxygen deprivation, but the medical staff opted not to attempt a C-section. Instead, they continued to administer Pitocin to Griepentrog at increasingly high doses.  Griepentrog delivered her son vaginally after 14 hours of labor. Greyson showed low oxygen levels throughout Griepentrog’s labor.[] 

Griepentrog’s lawsuit claims that the administration of Pitocin led to further oxygen deprivation. Banner Health physicians diagnosed Greyson with hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). 

Today, Greyson has cerebral palsy and, according to his mother, requires significantly more assistance than most children his age. He receives ongoing physical therapy and other intensive medical services. Griepentrog sued Banner Health in 2020 for medical negligence. Banner Health refused settlement attempts, leading to a fall 2023 trial. 

In court, Banner Health denied responsibility for Greyson’s health problems. Expert witness for the defense alleged that Greyson’s condition was genetic and not related to the events surrounding his birth. Lawyers for Griepentrog argued that nurses at Banner Health did not follow policy on the administration of Pitocin, claiming that medical staff should have ceased administering Pitocin once it was clear that Greyson was experiencing oxygen deprivation. They also alleged that records from the fetal heart monitor tracking Greyson’s heartbeat while Griepentrog was in labor were missing. Banner Health’s legal team has stated that these records were “‘accidentally lost.’” [][]

A jury ruled in favor of Griepentrog, finding that Banner Health was medically negligent. They ruled that Banner Health was 57% at fault and assigned 43% of the blame to the attending physician, Laurie Erickson, MD. Banner Health was ordered to pay $17.9 million in damages and an additional $2 million in sanctions because the verdict was higher than Griepentrog’s original offer to settle for $7 million. Dr. Erickson was dismissed as a defendant five days before the case went to trial. Since she was no longer a party when the verdict was reached, she won’t be required to pay.[]

Banner Health still denies responsibility in this case, stating that it “‘strongly disagree[s]’” with the verdict. Officials with the healthcare system say they will look into legal options to appeal the ruling.[] 

The Pitocin controversy

Synthetic oxytocin medications, such as Piticon, have been used to induce labor since the 1950s. Induction became more common in the 1970s. There have been previous concerns about the effects of induction and medications like Piticon on mothers and infants, but studies have largely found that induction is safe and effective. Additionally, perinatal mortality is lowest at 39 to 40 weeks. The use of medications like Piticon can also help avoid C-sections and their associated risks.[] 

In recent years, however, the use of Pitocin has become more controversial. Griepentrog’s lawsuit against Banner Health is one of multiple malpractice suits around the country linking Pitocin to cerebral palsy. These cases argue that because Pitocin causes contractions that are longer and more intense, it can decrease oxygen to the fetus during delivery and lead to brain damage. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists brain damage as a reported adverse reaction to Pitocin usage.[][] 

Cerebral palsy isn’t the only potential health problem that’s been linked to Pitocin. There have been concerns that the medication can cause birth injuries, and there are claims that its use during labor can lead to neurodevelopmental conditions, namely autism and ADHD. These claims have made Pitocin a hot topic in some circles. Online, some forums for expectant parents advise others to refuse the medication during labor. 

Research hasn’t found any truth to these claims. Although one 2017 study did find a small increase in maternal postpartum depressive and anxiety symptoms linked to Pitocin use, no studies have linked it to the claimed effects on children.[]

In a 2018 study, researchers from the University of Cambridge looked at years of data concerning Pitocin use during labor and future diagnosis of autism and ADHD. They concluded that perinatal oxytocin increases the risks of neurodevelopmental problems that are premature. Observational studies of low to high quality comprise the evidence base, and confounding, especially by the genetic or environmental vulnerability, remains an issue. Current evidence is insufficient to justify modifying obstetric guidelines for the use of oxytocin.[]

In fact, some research has suggested that Pitocin use during labor could even have positive effects on neurodevelopment. There are some documented and serious risks of Pitocin, including overstimulation of the uterus, uterine rupture, and fetal distress, but these are rare. Obstetrician Hanna Laine, MD,  says that Pitocin is generally safe with correct administration and close monitoring.[][]

“The negative things we think about most commonly are creating too many contractions. It can also cause abnormal fetal heart rate,” Dr. Laine explains. “But side effects are rare. Continuous monitoring of the fetus and uterus helps monitor for those possibly worrisome side effects. With that monitoring, you can adjust as needed if any side effects do occur.”

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