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Can a nurse face criminal charges for a medical mistake?

It was likely a busy shift. The floor was likely understaffed. The nurses were likely all doing their best to serve their patients, to help them feel comfortable and get the care they need. One nurse made a mistake, gave the wrong medication, and a patient died.

What happens when a patient dies due to a mistake?

Medical professionals may expect an investigation, perhaps some type of repercussion. But the medical community is reeling after hearing the nurse was charged with criminal abuse and reckless homicide. Shortly after the accident, the nurse was fired. The hospital, Vanderbilt in Tennessee, did not report the medication error and negotiated a settlement with the patient’s family that included a provision that kept the family from discussing the error.

A year later, an anonymous tip notifies state and federal agencies of the hospital’s failure to properly report the medication error. Almost two years later, officials arrest the nurse.

Did the nurse commit a crime?

Although the nurse admits making a mistake, she pleads not guilty to the criminal charges. After all a medical mistake should not rise to the level of a crime, should it? Due to the criminal charges, the state Department of Health decided to reverse its prior decision not to pursue disciplinary measures against the nurse. They are now conducting a hearing of their own, and she could face additional fines and the potential revocation of her nursing license.

The professional hearing was set for May of 2020, the criminal trial for July. The pandemic has delayed both. At this time, the professional hearing is now set to resume in Feb of 2021, the trial in March.

What does this mean for other nurses throughout the country?

This holding of this trial could signal a change in the relationship between medical care and the criminal justice system. We will provide updates as they become available.