A girl born at the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia (VA), faces a lifetime of mental and physical disabilities stemming from cerebral palsy and other developmental problems. That much is indisputable. Other facts and conclusions from a birth injury lawsuit filed by the child’s parents against the federal government and the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center remain unknowable following a U.S. Justice Department decision to settle the case by paying the girl’s family $2.3 million for past medical expenses and the costs of providing care for her for the rest of her life.

Suing federal health care providers and facilities can be difficult because, essentially,the same government employs the judge who decides the case as the entities that injured the plaintiffs. You get no jury of your peers under the Federal Tort Claims Act, or FTCA. Active duty military personnel cannot sue for medical malpractice or medical negligence at all, for instance, under the theory that all health care provided by military doctors, nurses, technicians and pharmacists comes in the course of the soldiers’, sailors’ and airmen’s life-risking service. My colleagues have decried the basic injustice of this legal principle, known as the Feres Doctrine, so I’ll leave that discussion aside to focus on the most-recent birth injury settlement.

According to a report in the January 11, 2011, Virginian-Pilot, a young woman checked into the Portsmouth naval hospital when the woman started experiencing unusual cramps and pains during her last week of pregnancy. Evidence presented during pretrial hearings indicated that the woman “was moved to a triage room and connected to a fetal heart monitor, which showed abnormalities indicating the fetus was under stress, the suit says. Instead of notifying a doctor, the papers say, the staff left [the woman] for more than an hour without any intervention.”

Some time between that admission and when doctors performed an emergency caesarean section more than two hours later, the baby detached from it placenta and got starved of oxygen. The lack of oxygen may have caused the young girl’s cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

Complicated labor and delivery, and even birth injury, occur frequently. Doctors and nurses must monitor mothers and fetuses closely whenever problems present themselves. While no one on the staff of the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center admitted to malpractice or negligence during while caring for the woman and her child, it seems possible that quicker action on the part of doctors and nurses could have spared the young girl and her family decades of suffering and hardships.

No amount of money can make up for the quality of life lost by the child and her parents. The funds will provide some much needed help and peace of mind, however. My thoughts are with the family.