All adverse outcomes cannot be prevented; however, defensibility is strengthened when care rendered is consistent with standards of care.

Olympic Cool-Cap System, Natus Medical Inc.

In this blog I’ll provide a brief overview of Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE) neonatal brain injury.  I will review the definition, the incidence (U.S. and worldwide), associated complications, possible causes, and recommended treatment.  I will also share possible defenses to consider when developing a HIE neonatal brain injury case. 

What Is It? HIE neonatal brain injury is injury to the brain as a result of hypoxia.  Hypoxia is a deficiency of well oxygenated tissue.  This can result from a combination of insufficient blood flow and/or decreased oxygen levels. 

How Common Is HIE? HIE is the leading cause of brain injury in the perinatal period.

  • Occurs in 1 to 8 of every 1,000 live births in the United States
  • HIE causes 30% of cerebral palsy cases in the United States
  • HIE causes 23% of neonatal deaths world-wide. The fifth leading cause of deaths worldwide in children under 5 years of age (World Health Organization, 2020).

Complications of HIE (including, but not limited to…): cerebral palsy, epilepsy, mental retardation, visual impairment, hearing impairment, learning disabilities, cardiac arrest, death.

Causes (including, but not limited to…) of HIE neonatal brain Injury: (literature suggests 70-80% of HIE neonatal brain injury cases are not preventable)

  1. Antepartum and Intrapartum Events – placental abruption, umbilical cord prolapse, uterine rupture, acute blood loss (maternal hemorrhage), infection
  2. Maternal Underlying Risk Factors – hypotension, hypertension, placental vasculopathies, insulin dependent diabetes
  3. Neonatal Risk Factors – congenital heart disease, pulmonary disease, severe apnea, patent ductus arteriosus, hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, meconium aspiration syndrome, infection

Treatment:  Therapeutic hypothermia, or induced cooling, has been shown to reduce death and disability in many HIE cases.  Reduction in the core body temperature reduces the brain temperature resulting in neuroprotection.  Therapeutic hypothermia is the standard of care for infants who are diagnosed with moderate to severe HIE following birth (no later than 6 hours of life) and who meet specific criteria per standard of care adopted by organizational policy, procedure, and order set. 

*Sarnat Staging System is the standard of care to grade severity of HIE

Cooling can be done on the whole body, or through a cooling cap placed on the head.  The infant may need other medical interventions to support their organs or to treat seizures.

Infants who experience HIE may require early intervention therapy services after discharge.  These include services from a neurodevelopmental pediatrician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, feeding and swallowing therapist, and/or a pediatric neurodevelopmental ophthalmologist.

Possible Plaintiff Allegations for HIE Neonatal Brain Injury:

Failure to transfer mother to tertiary care center (higher level of care)

Failure to or delay in transferring infant to Level III NICU for hypothermia therapy

Failure to attend or delay in arrival of a NICU team to a high-risk delivery

Failure of medical staff to recognize and treat neonatal seizures

Failure of Midwife to have appropriate resuscitative equipment and personnel for home delivery

Failure to follow hypothermia treatment protocol

Possible Defenses for HIE Neonatal Brain Injury:

The infant did not meet criteria for hypothermia protocol

The manifestations of the brain injury were metabolic or genetic in nature and not a result of HIE

The infant was not stable for transport to a higher level of care

The mother was non-compliant with regimen for high-risk pregnancy conditions

The mother had no prenatal care

Synthesis of Data and Case Development:  Knowing which relevant maternal and infant medical records to request and what questions to ask are essential.  Having an awareness of standard physician orders, and standing nursing orders will support the development of a case.  A strong understanding of the electronic medical record and documentation requirements, as well as standard laboratory and diagnostics ordered will support case development. 

Below are some clinical areas of focus for case development:

  • pathophysiology of fetal monitoring and fetal strip interpretation: identification of fetal hypoxia
  • acid-base balance: identification of fetal and/or neonatal metabolic acidosis
  • newborn Apgar scoring: identification of the presence of birth asphyxia
  • gestational age assessment: evaluation of the appropriateness of implementing hypothermia treatment
  • staging and classification criteria for HIE: identification of the level of neurological compromise, identification of eligibility criteria of newborn for hypothermia treatment
  • hypothermia treatment: identification of treatment as the standard of care, criteria for treatment, treatment modalities, procedure, staff competencies and continuing education

Perinatal Safety and Professional Liability: All adverse outcomes cannot be prevented; however, defensibility is strengthened when care is consistent with relevant, current evidence-based practice recommendations and standards of care. 

P.S. Comment and Share: What were your successes and challenges working through a HIE birth injury case?


Douglas-Escobar & Weiss. (2015). Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy: A review for the clinician. JAMA pediatrics. 169(4):397–403. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.3269 

Simpson K.R., & Creehan P.A. (2020). AWHONN’s Perinatal Nursing. 5th edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

World Health Organization. (2020). Newborns: improving survival and wellbeing. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/newborns-reducing-mortality

World Health Organization. (2022). The top 10 causes of death. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death