Bringing a "Wrongful Life" Lawsuit in California

Wrongful life lawsuits are personal injury and medical malpractice claims against a healthcare professional or provider. They argue that a doctor's malpractice caused a child to be born with life-altering difficulties. These problems keep the child from living a full life. Wrongful life lawsuits demand compensation from the doctor. The doctor's employer or hospital can be held liable through vicarious liability.

Unlike a wrongful birth lawsuit, wrongful life lawsuits are filed by the child who was born. Wrongful birth claims are brought by the parents. Wrongful life lawsuits are more difficult because fewer birth injuries will support a lawsuit.

In this article, our California personal injury lawyers explain:

wrongful life lawsuit doctor examining baby
Wrongful Life lawsuits argue that a doctor’s malpractice caused a child to be born with life-altering difficulties

1. What are wrongful life lawsuits in California?

A wrongful life lawsuit is a personal injury claim. It is brought by a child who was born because a doctor committed medical malpractice. That malpractice led to the child being born with severe medical conditions. Those conditions are either genetic or congenital, and have led to the child's life with a severe disability.

To succeed in a wrongful life lawsuit, the child victim has to show:

  • The doctor's negligence failed to inform the child's parents of the risks of the child's disability, or perform the tests that would have discovered those risks,
  • The child was born with a disability,
  • If the child's parents had known of the disability, they would not have had the child, and
  • The doctor's negligence was a substantial factor in the child's birth.1

1.1. When does the doctor's malpractice have to occur?

In order to succeed in a wrongful life claim, victims have to show that the doctor's negligence amounted to medical malpractice. That malpractice that caused the injury could have happened before or after the conception of the child.2

Malpractice that happens before the child's conception is often the doctor's failure to detect genetic conditions in the parents. This can prevent the parents from choosing not to have children, as they would be plagued with the hereditary condition. As a result, the child is born with a life-altering medical problem.

Example: A doctor fails to diagnose the parents' first child as having hereditary deafness. One year later, the parents have another child, who is also deaf.3

Malpractice that happens after the child's conception often fails to diagnose a congenital defect in the fetus. This can keep the parents from deciding to terminate the pregnancy. The child is then born with a birth injury that impairs the rest of their life.

Example: Doctors take a blood sample from a pregnant woman, but do not test it. They fail to discover the fetus has congenital hydrocephalus and spina bifida.4

1.2. Is it always malpractice if the doctor failed to perform a genetic test?

It is only considered malpractice to fail to administer a genetic test if the test would probably have discovered the birth defect.

Many wrongful life lawsuits claim that the doctor's negligence consisted of not performing a genetic test. They argue that, had the doctor done the test, the child would not have been born with a medical condition.

However, if odds were that the test would not have discovered the problem, it is not considered malpractice to not administer the test. If the test would have detected the problem less than 50% of the time, negligently failing to do the test did not cause the child's injuries.

Example: Doctors did not commit malpractice by not performing an Alpha Fetoprotein Test on a pregnant woman who gave birth to a child with Down's syndrome. The test only detects the condition 20% of the time.5

1.3. What kinds of injuries can support a wrongful life lawsuit?

In California, wrongful life lawsuits only succeed if the victim suffered especially severe injuries. Mere social setbacks are not enough.

This standard is higher than for wrongful birth lawsuits. Those lawsuits only have to show that the parents could not make an informed medical decision.

Examples of congenital and birth injuries that have supported a wrongful life lawsuit in California have included:

  • Hereditary deafness,6
  • Tay-Sachs disease (a genetic disorder that destroys nerve cells and leads to death in early childhood),7
  • Congenital hydrocephalus and spina bifida,8 and
  • Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease, a potentially fatal kidney problem.9

Examples of injuries or setbacks that have not supported wrongful life lawsuits have included:

  • Social stigmatization of being born out of wedlock,10 or
  • The unrealized risk of being born with a mental disability.11
lab technician holding blood sample
The doctor or physician whose malpractice failed to detect the medical condition can be held liable.

2. Who can be held liable in a wrongful life lawsuit?

The doctor or physician whose malpractice failed to detect the medical condition can be held liable. The doctor's employer – often a clinic or hospital – can also be held liable through vicarious liability if the malpractice happened on the job.

People who are outside the medical profession cannot be liable in a wrongful life lawsuit.12 These people or companies do not have a legal duty to keep children safe or healthy.13

3. What kind of compensation can a wrongful life lawsuit recover?

Wrongful life lawsuits can only recover losses associated with the birth injury. This makes them different from regular personal injury or medical malpractice claims. These recoverable losses include:

  • Medical bills for the costs of treating the birth injury,
  • Future medical bills associated with special care the child needs,
  • Specialized non-medical the child will need, like wheelchairs and special education, and
  • Home modifications to accommodate the child's disabilities.

It does not include general damages, which are normally available in personal injury cases:

In some cases, both the child files a wrongful life lawsuit and the parents file a wrongful birth lawsuit over the same incident. In these cases, the compensation that one lawsuit recovers gets deducted from similar types of compensation the other lawsuit stands to recover.15

Call us for help…

california personal injury attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

Wrongful life lawsuits stem from some of the worst injuries you can suffer. You may be entitled to compensation for having to deal with such a serious malady. Contact our medical malpractice lawyers today to get started on your case.


Legal References:

  1. California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 513.

  2. Gami v. Mullikin Medical Center, 18 Cal. App. 4th 870 (Cal. App. 1993).

  3. Turpin v. Sortini, 643 P.2d 954 (Cal. 1982).

  4. Gami v. Mullikin Medical Center, Supra.

  5. Simmons v. West Covina Medical Clinic, 212 Cal.App.3d 696 (Cal. App. 1989).

  6. Turpin v. Sortini, Supra.

  7. Curlender v. Bio-Science Laboratories, 106 Cal. App. 3d 811 (Cal. App. 1980).

  8. Gami v. Mullikin Medical Center, Supra.

  9. Johnson v. Superior Court, 101 Cal. App. 4th 869 (Cal. App. 2002).

  10. Stills v. Gratton, 55 Cal. App. 3d 698 (Cal. App. 1976).

  11. Foy v. Greenblott, 141 Cal. App. 3d 1 (Cal. App. 1983).

  12. Hegyes v. Unjian Enterprises, Inc., 234 Cal. App. 3d 1103 (Cal. App. 1991) (no legal duty when birth injuries were allegedly caused by a car accident).

  13. Elsheref v. Applied Materials, Inc., 223 Cal. App. 4th 451 (Cal. App. 2014) (no wrongful life claim against father's employer, who exposed the father to radiation on the job).

  14. See Turpin v. Sortini, Supra, and Johnson v. Superior Court, Supra.

  15. See Turpin v. Sortini, Supra.

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