Birth Injury: Kernicterus

Kernicterus is a form of brain damage that can lead to severe and even fatal consequences. If your baby has been diagnosed with kernicterus, and you believe the diagnosis was the result of negligence, you may be able to seek justice through a medical malpractice lawsuit. At the law firm of Bachus & Schanker, our attorneys can help you know your rights and options.

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What is kernicterus?

One of the most common ailments a newborn may face during their first days of life is jaundice, occurring in an estimated 6 out of 10 babies. Jaundice is a medical condition described as the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Other symptoms of newborn jaundice can include dark yellow urine and pale-colored stool. 

Jaundice occurs when there is a buildup of bilirubin in a baby’s blood system. Bilirubin is a yellowish substance that is created when red blood cells are broken down. Because babies have a higher number of red blood cells in their blood, they are more frequently broken down and replaced. Additionally, the liver of a newborn baby is not fully developed and it’s the liver that helps remove bilirubin from the blood.

With the right treatment, jaundice can be resolved without complications. In cases where jaundice goes untreated, it can lead to a dangerous and even fatal condition known as Kernicterus, a rare type of brain damage that can cause serious complications in a baby’s development.  

What are kernicterus risk factors?

Some existing factors can determine if your baby is at a higher risk of developing  Kernicterus:

  • Elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood system 
  • Rapidly rising levels of bilirubin in the blood system 
  • Babies who have not received treatment for newborn jaundice 
  • Mother and child sharing a similar blood group
  • The lack of an enzyme (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) that helps red blood cells work as they should
  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth
  • Darker skin color that makes jaundice harder to notice
  • Gilbert’s syndrome — a medical condition that results in higher levels of bilirubin

What are the symptoms of kernicterus and how is it diagnosed?

Symptoms of kernicterus are closely related to those of newborn jaundice and will usually develop within the first few days of life. Common symptoms of Kernicterus include the following: 

  • Extreme yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • Yellowish mucous membranes 
  • Toxic levels of bilirubin measured in the brain 
  • Difficulty feeding or nursing
  • Lack of energy, or drowsiness
  • Fever 
  • Shrill high-pitched scream 
  • The absence of certain reflexes such as the Moro reflex
  • Respiratory issues
  • Mild to severe muscle spasms 
  • Poor muscle tone 
  • Motor development delays

What are the long-term effects of kernicterus?

Brain damage associated with the central nervous system can lead to long-term effects that can drastically change the way an individual can navigate their life. Some of the long-term effects associated with kernicterus include the following: 

  • Developing slow or uncontrolled movements
  • Developing random, jerky movements
  • Hearing loss or deafness
  • Poor muscle tone 
  • Learning problems and disabilities impacting cognitive development
  • Issues moving the eyes around, especially in the upwards direction 
  • Cerebral Palsy 

When is a case of kernicterus considered medical malpractice?

While newborn jaundice occurs on its own, medical malpractice associated with a baby’s diagnosis can happen if there was negligence on the part of the medical provider or hospital facility. Negligence occurs when a healthcare provider or medical facility breaches their duty of care to a patient. 

If a medical professional is aware that a newborn has jaundice and does not take proper care to treat it or alert the family of the health concerns, this could be deemed negligent. The hospital facility itself could be held liable for the employment of the negligent physician. 

It’s important to note that negligence and intent do not always coincide. Healthcare professionals can be held negligent if they fail in misdiagnosis or treatment. This could occur if the healthcare professional did not follow rules, procedures, and policy, was not properly trained, or acted in any other way that violated the breach of duty. 

Who can I sue for medical malpractice?

Typically, medical malpractice lawsuits will name the healthcare professional that worked with a patient as well as the organization or facility they worked for or contracted with. 

Hospitals are businesses that are either publicly or privately owned. When it comes to a medical malpractice lawsuit, hospitals can be held liable for their negligence as well as the negligence of their employees. Responsibility over their employees is what is often called “vicarious liability.” 

A successful medical malpractice lawsuit should show that a medical professional was negligent in their behavior and that a hospital or medical facility is also directly negligent, vicariously negligent, or both. 

What damages are available for a kernicterus birth injury?

In a medical malpractice lawsuit, a plaintiff can seek restitution in the form of economic and non-economic damages. In some cases, a plaintiff might also seek punitive damages. 

Economic damages are designed to restore a person’s financial losses: 

  • Medical bills and hospital bills
  • Lost wages and earning capacity
  • Medical equipment 
  • Home health care costs
  • Counseling 
  • Physical therapy

Non-economic damages compensate a plaintiff for the pain and suffering that results from medical malpractice. These damages include but are not limited to: 

  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Anxiety and trauma
  • Loss of enjoyment of life

Working with experienced birth injury lawyers can help determine what damages you and your family should pursue as well as how to collect pertinent evidence to support your claim. 

Does your baby suffer from kernicterus? Contact a Colorado birth injury lawyer

Birth injury lawyers shaking hands with a desk between them. On the desk is paperwork, a Lady Justice statue, and a gavel

The birth of a child should be a time of celebration, but a birth injury such as kernicterus can cause undue stress and suffering. The birth injury lawyers at Bachus & Schanker are committed to helping families with children who have suffered a birth injury find hope and justice in their case. 

Our legal team works in tandem with our firm’s dedicated Victim Advocates Team. This specialized team is composed of legal and educational professionals that work with birth injury victims, victims of catastrophic injury, and other highly sensitive cases. The Victim Advocates Team will help connect you to resources in your community where you can find the support and guidance you need. 


Jaundice in Newborns. (2023).

Newborn Jaundice. (2013).

Newborn Reflexes. (2023). Vicarious Liability. (2022).

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Written and Legally Reviewed By: Kyle Bachus

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Kyle is a member of the Colorado and Florida Bar associations and has served on the Board of Directors of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association for more than twenty years in total. Over the years, Kyle has achieved justice for many clients. He has served on numerous committees and repeatedly won recognition from his peers at both the state and national level. He is proud of the role he has played in the passage of state and national legislation to protect consumers and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer.