PERSONAL INJURY SOLICITOR TRURO: The controversy over head injuries

There is controversy among medical professionals  about whether a fall from a low level height could cause the sort of bleeding on the brain  ie subdural haematomas often linked with non-accidental shaking injury.

This brings in the case of Re N (A child: Low level falls) 2016.

In that case, the parents’ account was that the only incident of note was that the child, an 11-month old, said to have had been standing, holding onto the back of a chair for support and then fallen backwards and banging his head on  floor.

There was a  skull fracture about 1 month later that they say was caused when the child fell and hit his head on a kerb.

Could that have caused the serious injuries that he sustained?

The experts were candid about the limitations of medical science.

About which the judge said [ précis ]:

I have had the advantage of medical evidence  from 3 experienced experts who were in a very large measure of agreement.

All 3 experts accepted that the fall described by the parents on 9 August 2015 could cause the intracranial injuries discovered [the August injury], although such significant injury from a fall from standing would be very unusual. Mr Richards was of the opinion that the significant interference with the functioning of the brain was also very unusual from such a low fall. Despite the unusual features, the experts would accept the account given for the August injury to be a credible explanation.

Concerning the September injury, the experts agreed that no convincing explanation had been given as to how N had suffered this fracture. They were all of the opinion that the explanations offered by the parents were very unlikely to cause a skull fracture and, in the absence of a credible explanation, this was likely to be an inflicted injury. They were all of the view that, as the September injury was more likely to have been non-accidental, when taken together with the unusual features of the August injury, this increased the likelihood of the August injury also being caused by an inflicted event.

However, the divergence of views produced an additional element of complexity to the determination of the local authority’s allegations against the parents in this already complex case.

For the local authority to succeed on the primary threshold findings it seeks, it has to prove on the balance of probabilities that the explanations provided by the parents are not how these injuries were caused. It is not for the parents to prove that the injuries were caused by the low level falls that they have described.

When he gave his oral evidence, Mr Richards said the following [my note]: “This is a debate [whether low level falls can cause intracranial injury] that is lively at the moment.

Dr Cartlidge was involved in making a point about these cases and there were some rather heated exchanges about the possibility of low level falls causing serious injury.

The vast majority of low level falls are not imaged. Of those that are, neuro-radiologists will say that low level falls, of the type N had, cannot cause multi-compartment bleeding and, therefore, the story given by the parents must be untrue. I, like Dr Cartlidge, say ‘can you say that on the data we have’? I say we don’t know.

A decade ago, apart from the babies that died, it was said that birth did not cause subdural haemorrhages. Three research projects have now demonstrated that it does and it is now universally accepted that birth causes subdural haemorrhages in about 50% of babies.

The medical profession was wrong before. Low level falls may be similar. We can’t do routine MRI scans of children of this age as they have to be given anaesthetic to keep them still. The reason that these children are not imaged is because the majority just get up from a fall and have no injury. Very few have any disturbance for 1 or 2 days and even fewer for a longer period”.

41       At paragraph 23 of his report dated 16 December 2015, Mr Richards said “patients with such low level falls are rarely imaged on the grounds that there is no neurological disturbance from such falls, so we do not really know the number of low level falls which do cause fresh subdural bleeding. In those that are imaged it is extremely rare to identify fresh subdural bleeding.”

42       In his report to the court, Dr Cartlidge said, at page 19, ” It is probably very unusual for such a short-distance fall to cause subdural bleeding, although I agree with Mr Richards that it could be more common than currently appreciated since neuro-imaging might not be undertaken in such cases. I have professional experience of a similar low-distance fall causing subdural bleeding in two infants (findings of Family Courts). Initial symptoms in my experience are often akin to those seen in reflex­ anoxic episodes.

43       When he gave his oral evidence, Dr Cartlidge said that children would usually stand with soft knees and if he did have that typical stance, and he had some saving reflexes, he would not perform what Dr Cartlidge described as a ‘matchstick fall’ (a straight fall backwards with a stiff body). Dr Cartlidge was of the opinion that by far the most likely response from a child of this age would be a bending of the knees and a fall onto his bottom. However, Dr Cartlidge went on to describe the circumstances of 3 cases he has encountered in his medico-legal work where the family court accepted that an injury had been caused by an accident or had not found the allegation of non-accidental injury to be proved. The detail given by Dr Cartlidge in his oral evidence was supplemented by a later email that all advocates agreed I should consider. The details of the low-level fall cases referred to by Dr Cartlidge included the following:

One case involved a 42-week old who fell about 65 cm from a bed. There was a brief acute encephalopathy (interference with the functioning of the brain), subdural bleeding over a cerebral hemisphere and in the posterior fossa (the part of the brain at the top of the brain stem underneath the cerebral hemispheres) and acute traumatic effusion (an acute effusion appears similar to chronic subdural haemorrhage on the initial CT scan (as black fluid) but is due to an acute tear/rent in the arachnoid membrane allowing normal cerebrospinal fluid (seen as black on CT scans) from the subarachnoid space to cross into the potential subdural space. This causes a black fluid collection of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the subdural space due to recent trauma that mimics the appearance of an old subdural haemorrhage from a prior injury). There was subdural blood in the thoracic, lumbar and sacral spine and bilateral retinal haemorrhages. The Family Court found the injuries to be accidental.

A second case involved a 35-week old who fell from standing (about 70 cm). There was acute encephalopathy after initial crying for some 2 minutes and a large subdural haematoma (space-occupying). There were also retinal haemorrhages. The Family Court found the injuries to be accidental.

In the third case, a 52-week old fell from standing (about 70-75 cm). There was mild or possibly absent acute encephalopathy. Subdural bleeding was present over a cerebral hemisphere and in the posterior fossa. Acute traumatic effusion was present. There was subdural blood in the lumbar spine and bilateral retinal haemorrhages. The Family Court found the injuries to be accidental.

44          I must decide the facts in this case on the evidence that I have heard about this child and not be swayed by comparisons to other cases involving different children and different facts. However, Dr Cartlidge’s purpose in highlighting these other cases was to provide clear examples to support his opinion that children can suffer what he described as ‘nasty intracranial injuries’ when falling from standing.

45          At page 21 of his report, Dr Sprigg says “Subdural haemorrhages may occur following a known traumatic event involving a significant impact, e.g. being dropped forcibly onto the baby’s head from a significant height or hitting a hard object at speed. In older children they can occur during accidents, eg getting knocked over by a car. They are exceptionally rare from low-level domestic falls in infants. The site of bleed in accidental injury is usually physically related to the site of impact over the cerebral hemisphere. Subdural bleeds in non-accidental injury are more often over both hemispheres and may also be seen in the posterior fossa near the cerebellum near to the craniocervical junction. This is a rare site for accidental trauma”.

46          At page 13 of his report, Dr Sprigg sets out “the finding of posterior fossa bleeding is more commonly seen in non-accidental head injury (NAHI) but it is recognised in significant accidental impact to the back of the head”.

47          In his oral evidence, Dr Sprigg told me that the bleeding seen on the scans was consistent with a shake or an acceleration/deceleration event. He said that there was bleeding over both sides of brain and at the base of the brain. His evidence was that this is a pattern that is commonly seen in shaking cases but it can also occur if there is a significant bang to the back of the head.

48          It was Dr Sprigg’s opinion that the bleeds found on 11 August 2016 [the August injury] could have happened by a short fall but it would be uncommon. When cross-examined by Ms McFadyen, Dr Sprigg told me [my note]:

“A fall to the floor as described is acknowledged as a mechanism that can cause this intracranial injury. Most children would not suffer any injury from such a fall. Some may suffer a skull fracture. It is uncommon to find bleeding over both hemispheres and at the cerebellum but it is possible. If the history had been that he fell on his forehead, I wouldn’t agree that the explanation was consistent but as he fell onto the back of his head, where all the veins gather and is an area vulnerable to injury, it is a credible account. Had this occurred at our hospital, it would have been said that this was feasible”.

49          Having heard all 3 experts give their oral evidence, I formed the clear impression that they were each open to the real possibility of such low level falls, of the kind described by M and F as occurring on 9 August 2015, causing the intracranial injuries seen on the 11 August scans. Indeed, Mr Richards and Dr Cartlidge were more open to this kind of mechanism being an accurate account for the causation of such significant bleeding than they would have been in years past. There was no hint of dogmatism from any of the 3 experts; they were open to considering both the rare and the unusual.

50          Mr Richards, Dr Cartlidge and Dr Sprigg carried this openness to considering the unusual and rare through to their consideration of the potential causes of the skull fracture discovered on 14 September.

51          In his report dated 24 November 2015, Dr Sprigg provides a detailed account of the possible causes of skull fractures. He describes:

“A skull fracture is commonly due to a forceful impact. This may be due to the head hitting something hard, or a hard object hitting the head with significant force. An infant may have an accidental skull fracture but this depends on its level of mobility. For example, a two-month-old baby is not sufficiently mobile to self inflict a skull fracture, but a ten-month-old that is crawling and falls downstairs might self inflict a skull fracture. An infant’s skull is flexible and tends to bend rather than fracture. It takes significant force to fracture an infant’s skull. As a generalisation under 1-2% of infants will sustain a skull fracture if they are dropped from below adult waist height. However, if the fall is from a greater height this is more likely to produce a fracture than a low level fall. When the fall is onto a hard surface (eg concrete or laminate flooring) versus a more compliant surface (eg carpet with under-felt over floorboards) then the harder surface increases the chance of fracture. A free fall (drop) involves less force of impact than if a baby is thrown down. Occasionally skull fractures occur related to birth. They are uncommon, but have a higher incidence in a difficult forceps delivery than ventouse or than in normal vaginal delivery of a normal sized baby”.

52          When he gave his oral evidence, Dr Sprigg was of the opinion that either fall described by M (from sitting or from standing) [the September injury] would be unlikely to cause this skull fracture but could not be excluded as impossible. When answering questions from Ms McFadyen, he told me “If this was an isolated event and the history was that he had fallen over to the right and had come straight into casualty, it would be accepted as an accidental event. There is a skull fracture rate of below 1 to 2 % if a fall is from below adult waist height but had he been presented quickly with a consistent history, the explanation might have been accepted”.

53          Mr Richards’ mind was similarly open to the possibility of the fall as described by M being a possible cause of the skull fracture. He told me that a low level fall would be unusual for causing a skull fracture and a drop of about 82 cm is usually required to cause a fracture from research undertaken with deceased infants. However, he would not rule it out as impossible but it would be a very rare event.

54          Similarly, Dr Cartlidge would not rule-out any event as being impossible but was more sceptical that the simple fall, of either type described by the mother, would cause a skull fracture. It was put to him that it may have been that N fell and hit his head on the kerb. When considering this scenario, Dr Cartlidge said [my note] “the right side of the head is the site of the fracture. The shoulder is in the way and for the shoulder not to be in the way, I struggle to see how the right side of head would bear the full brunt of the force of the fall but if you get over that and the head pivots over his neck and hits the edge of the kerb, that could cause the fracture”. That was about as close as Dr Cartlidge would be drawn toward accepting that the fall described was, of itself, a possible mechanism.

55          Having considered the fall proposed for the September injury in isolation, each expert relied on important contextual facts as indicating that the fall described on 6 September 2015 would not have caused the fracture to N’s skull.

56          Establishing a timeframe for the causation of the skull fracture and identifying whether the evidence reasonably excludes 6 September, a date some 8 days before the fracture was discovered on the scans as a day within that timescale, is a crucial matter for the court to consider when determining whether the local authority has proved that this alleged fall was not responsible for the skull fracture.

57          When looking at the timing of skull fractures, there was no dispute between the experts as to limits of radiological evidence. Dr Sprigg described in his oral evidence that once a skull fracture is present, it can be seen for 3 to 6 months on the X-ray, as there is no healing periosteal reaction. He said that the fracture can only be said to be recent if there is swelling present over it and that swelling is present for around 7 to a maximum of 10 days. The identification of scalp swelling, what type of scalp swelling was present and how long a swelling would be present became an issue between the experts upon which they did not agree.

58          In addition to the identification of swelling, all 3 experts agreed that the clinical presentation and the clinical history was crucial in identifying a reliable timescale for the causation of a skull fracture. The immediate pain reaction of a child was a matter upon which the experts agreed however, the duration of a visible pain reaction when touching the site of injury, and its relevance to the timeframe for the injury, was not a matter upon which Mr Richards and Dr Cartlidge agreed.

In this case, the threshold was found to be satisfied in relation to the skull fracture in September 2016, the evidence of the parents being a relevant factor and the lies that they were found to have told.

There was not a finding that they had caused an injury in August by shaking the child and the Judge was satisfied by the parents’ explanation for this injury.

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