Should nurses be held criminally liable for their mistakes?

Health

(NewsNation) — Former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse RaDonda Vaught is scheduled to be sentenced in court Friday after being convicted of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult for a fatal medication error she made more than four years ago.

The former nurse now faces up to eight years in prison.

That fact worries nurses across the country, who fear they could be held criminally liable for mistakes on the job. Others are concerned hospitals and health care workers will be more likely to cover up medical errors because of the decision.

The issue began in December 2017, when Vaught administered the wrong drug to a patient, 75-year-old Charlene Murphey.

Instead of giving Murphey the sedative Versed, Vaught gave her Vecuronium, a powerful paralyzing drug. It was a lethal mistake.

Murphey died and for almost 10 months nobody knew how. Vaught allegedly told hospital staffers that she had administered the wrong drug but two Vanderbilt doctors told the medical examiner that Murphey died a natural death.

The hospital did not report the fatal medication mistake to the state as required by law. Vanderbilt terminated Vaught and eventually settled a civil lawsuit with Murphey’s family.

It wasn’t until late 2018, when an anonymous tip came in alerting the Tennessee Department of Health to Vaught’s error, that the agency investigated further.

“I know that the reason that this patient is no longer here is because of me … There won’t ever be a day that goes by that I don’t think about what I did and how it’s affected them,” Vaught said at a Tennessee Board of Nursing hearing.

Vaught was initially cleared of wrongdoing, but a year later, the agency reversed course without explaining why.

The state, and the district attorney in Nashville, singled out Vaught, charging her and not the hospital.

Nurses’ mistakes often appear in medical malpractice lawsuits but criminal prosecutions are exceptionally rare.

The victim’s son told The Tennessean his mom would have forgiven Vaught and would be very upset that she could spend some of her life in prison.

In March, a jury found Vaught criminally liable for her role in Murphey’s death.

Now, Vaught’s case has become a rallying cry for the nursing community.

“I was appalled, and just completely shocked and scared really, when I saw that a nurse could be arrested and charged criminally for making a medication error,” said Tina Vinsant, a registered nurse and host of the “Good Nurse Bad Nurse” podcast.

Another nurse — who only wanted to be identified by her first name, Erica — sat through the trial, representing nurses who could not attend.

“There were things that were missed that RaDonda herself will tell you she did wrong but nurses make errors all the time because we are human. And when all of the fail safes and all of the safety things that are supposed to be in place are not there, is it really a hundred percent the nurse’s fault? Why does Vanderbilt bear no responsibility in this matter?” she asked.

Lorie Brown, the former president of the American Association of Nurse Attorneys, agreed.

“This is clearly medical malpractice. It is not a criminal matter. And Vanderbilt shares equally in the result of this case as RaDonda and should be held equally responsible,” said Brown, who also wrote “What They Don’t Teach You In Nursing School.”

The Vanderbilt Medical Center has declined to comment.

More than 211,000 people have signed a petition asking to grant RaDonda Vaught clemency.

On Friday, Vaught will be sentenced and nurses NewsNation spoke to think the decision could have a chilling effect on nurses across the country.

“It cannot be understated the detrimental effect that we’ll have on the nursing community, if it happens,” Erica said.

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