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Why Are Lawsuits Being Filed Over Baby Formula Causing NEC?

Having a baby should be a joyous time for a family. The first few weeks or months can be stressful, even more so if the baby was born prematurely and treated in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). As parents and guardians, ensuring a new baby gets all of the nutrition it needs to be healthy is crucial. While studies have shown that breast milk is better for premature babies, sometimes baby formula is the only option, or needed to supplement breastfeeding. But there are clear dangers with cow-based formula, especially when given to premature babies.

When a preterm infant is given cow-based baby formula and gets sick as a result, healthcare providers and manufacturers may face legal claims for medical negligence and product liability. If they didn’t adequately warn consumers or doctors of the risks, those involved may be held liable. Such is the case in the lawsuit against Abbott and Mead Johnson & Company, LLC, maker of the baby formula, Similac.

Macro photo of doctor's hands and legs of a child. Newborn is placed in a medical incubator under ultraviolet lamp.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed by parents of a preterm baby in California who was given Similac in the NICU, developed necrotizing enterocolitis, and died from the disease just 16 days after birth. They claim the risk of Similac baby formula causing NEC and death in preemies wasn’t properly disclosed on its packaging, in its warnings, or on other materials.

Studies have shown that certain types of baby formula increase risks of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). When a preemie is fed bovine-based baby formula, the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis is even greater, adding another layer of complications for infants. As parents, knowing your legal rights when your baby gets sick from a product, or the worst happens, is important.  

The claim against Similac is not the first baby food lawsuit to make headlines. In February 2021, there were reports of more than 80 lawsuits against manufacturers of baby food after poisons were found, including arsenic. The neurotoxic effects of the discovered poisons can be fatal and cause significant damage to brain development.

What is Necrotizing Enterocolitis?

Necrotizing enterocolitis is a gastrointestinal disorder that causes inflammation in the intestines, ultimately causing the tissue to die. There are additional risks of a baby’s affected intestine developing a perforation from the damage, creating serious dangers of bacteria leaking into the abdomen. When this happens, infections and sepsis may occur, making NEC even more dangerous and possibly fatal.

NEC mostly affects premature babies, specifically, babies that are fed through a tube and weigh less than five and a half pounds at birth. However, the greatest risk is for those weighing less than two pounds.

The symptoms of necrotizing enterocolitis include:

  • Abdominal swelling and pain
  • Green vomit
  • Lethargy
  • Bloody stool
  • Changes in heart pate, blood pressure, and body temperature

The inability to gain weight could also be an indication of NEC, a condition that most commonly develops within two to six weeks of premature birth. There are different types of necrotizing enterocolitis, and the severity of the condition can range from mild to severe. It can quickly worsen and be fatal, and while many babies fully recover, some suffer lifelong health complications.

Why are Premature Babies at Greater Risk of NEC?

Preterm babies are at risk of immediate and lifelong struggles because their organs are underdeveloped when born. They face respiratory, cardiac, gastrointestinal, and immunological morbidities and deficiencies. Babies are considered to be premature when they’re born before 37 weeks gestation, and they’re more prone to develop NEC, a serious condition that can be life-threatening, when they arrive early.

Many premature babies are unable to successfully breastfeed because they aren’t strong or big enough to do so. As a result, they often need additional nutrition to promote healthy growth and development, and to survive. To address this need, hospitals regularly substitute with baby formula, much of which is cow-based.

But studies over the last few decades have clearly shown the increased likelihood of NEC to occur in a preterm baby, and that cow-based formulas present even greater risks. This is why proper warnings are needed to ensure parents and doctors make informed decisions.

Almost a decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended breastmilk should be exclusively fed to infants for the first six months of their lives. While many premature babies struggle with breastfeeding, donated breast milk is one solution.

Do You Have an NEC Lawsuit?

The wrongful death lawsuit against Similac for its baby formula has brought to light and highlighted the role food companies have in a new baby’s life. If NEC risks associated with formula for preterm infants aren’t clear, or a doctor doesn’t communicate the risks to parents, there may be grounds to hold them accountable and seek justice.

If your baby developed necrotizing enterocolitis and a hospital fed your baby Similac or another bovine formula, contact a wrongful death, medical negligence, or product liability lawyer to discuss your case. Making a claim against those who failed to warn you of the risks can help ensure your family receives proper compensation for medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering. These cases are not dependent on fatal outcomes or serious long-term illness. You may have legal options even if your baby fully recovered from NEC.