An Alexandria Circuit Court jury has made a $1.5 million medical malpractice award to a 4-year-old victim of cerebral palsy.

Court officials believe it is the largest medical malpractice award in Virginia history.

Lawyers for Matthew V. Rutherford, 4, the victim of the paralytic disability, argued that the child was born with cerebral palsy because of negligence on the part of the attending physician at his birth.

The physician, Dr. John Zearfoss, argued that he had not been negligent and that it could not be proved that the child had not contracted cerebral palsy before his birth.

Attorneys for the Rutherford family argued that Dr. Zearfoss, the physician present at the delivery of the child, had not used alternate methods of delivery available to him although he knew hat a natural childbirth could result in injuries in the child. It was the family's contention that Dr. Zearfoss should have delivered Matthew by cesarean section.

In addition papers filed with the court charged that Dr. Zearfoss did not inform the child's parents of the dangers in having a natural childbirth or of alternate methods of delivery available.

Jack S. Rhoades, an attorney for the Rutherford family, said the child suffers from cerebral palsy affecting about 50 per cent of his body. Although Matthew is about 4, he cannot walk and can stand only haltingly for a few seconds before falling, Rhoades said.

Asked to comment on the jury's award, J. Ronald Lunch, another Rutherford family attorney, said: "It may have been that they thought about what the boy has to go through . . . It's not something that is going to end next week or next year. It's something that he's going to have the rest of his life to one degree or another."

Doctors believe that cerebral palsy is a disability caused by brain damage before or during birth. It can result in loss of muscular control to varying degrees depending on the extent of the brain damage. Severe cases can result in a total loss of coordination or paralysis.

Dr. Keith McClaren, a pediatric neurologist who has treated the child, testified at the trial that Matthew had reached a level of mobility normally associated with a child less than 1 year old. Dr. McClaren estimated that the child's condition would improve with age but added that there was no cure for cerebral palsy.

The child's mental capacity appears not to have been affected, although doctors says it may yet be too early to tell. Rhoades said doctors expected the child will earn to walk, though with difficulty, and that he may be able to drive a car with special difficulty.

Dr. Zearfoss' attorney, Harrison Pledger, said that malpractice cases are judged on the issue of whether the physician deviated from the accepted community standards.

Pledger argued that the only doctor who testified that his client had been negligent comes from Arizona, while foour other doctors who practice in Alexandria had testified to the contrary.

Pledger added that the child's own pediatrician, Dr. Keith McClaren, had admitted in court that no one could pinpoint the cause of the cerebral palsy. Pledger said the child's disease could have been caused by a variety of factors - including genetic problems, lack of oxygen, compression of the umbilical cord - which are not evident to the physician.

"That is why it was out position that there was no negligence," Pledger said in an interview. "It can't be shown what caused this, and if we don't know the cause how can it be Dr. Zearfoss' fault?"