Physicians and healthcare facilities aren’t the only entities that can become the target of a malpractice lawsuit. Nurses can also be sued, and over the last ten years, malpractice suits against nurses have been on the rise. Not only could you become involved in a suit against the facility you work for, but you yourself could potentially be an individual defendant.
A nurse on the losing end of a lawsuit has a lot to lose. You could lose your license to practice, your money, and even your personal assets. Even if your mistake was accidental, or it occurred while you were following a physician’s orders, you could face serious financial repercussions. In a handful of cases, nurses have faced criminal charges and even jail time.
Nursing is one of the few professions where there’s no tolerance for human error. It’s important to be aware of what qualifies as malpractice, how you can avoid it, and how you can protect yourself in the event of a lawsuit.
Malpractice is defined as negligence, misconduct, or breach of duty on the part of a healthcare professional, resulting in injury or damage to the patient, including failure to meet a standard of care. Care standards can originate from multiple sources, including professional literature, protocols, expert opinions, facility policies, and scope of practice.
Malpractice lawsuits can take years to make it to a courtroom. To prove that malpractice occurred, a plaintiff must prove all of the following claims:
- The nurse had a legal duty to the patient, which is assumed if the nurse took on the care of the patient.
- The nurse breached said legal duty, and did not meet the standard of care.
- A patient injury occurred as a result of the nurse’s failure to perform their professional duty. There must be an injury for a malpractice suit to occur.
- There is a causal relationship between the patient’s injury and the nurse’s malpractice.
Common Malpractice Claims Against Nurses
Nurses account for around 2% of malpractice lawsuits. Although it’s relatively uncommon overall, nurses can and have been sued individually. Some of the most common types of malpractice claims against nurses include:
- Failure to follow care standards. Standards of care can be variable, and can change on a yearly or even monthly basis. With that said, nurses have been sued for things like failing to follow a fall protocol, failing to follow procedures for a specific skill (such as administering medications, or inserting a nasogastric tube), or failure to make use of equipment correctly or responsibily. This isn’t always clear-cut. If you rig up equipment for anything other than a manufacturer’s intended purpose, you could be in legal trouble. You could also be sued for malpractice for using equipment that you’re not familiar with or haven’t been trained to use.
- Failure to communicate. Believe it or not, this can be grounds for a malpractice suit against an individual nurse. If you fail to communicate all patient information to a physician, to provide a patient with relevant discharge information, or to communicate assessment findings to the nurse on the next shift, you could be sued.
- Failure to document. Proper charting and documentation are incredibly important for ensuring that a patient receives the care they need. As far as the court is concerned, if it wasn’t documented, it never happened.
- Failure to assess and monitor a patient. In many cases, it’s up to nurses to decide how frequently to assess and monitor a patient. You could actually be sued if you failed to act as a patient’s advocate by challenging a physician’s orders. Simply following protocol will not always protect you.
Protecting Yourself from Malpractice Lawsuits
There are steps that you can take to help minimize the likelihood that you’ll be named in a malpractice suit.
- Document everything. As we’ve mentioned, if it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen. It’s important to document everything thoroughly in a patient’s chart.
- Follow the chain of command. If a physician decides not to take an action that you believe is needed, you can go to the charge nurse or nursing supervisor to ask for help continuously until the patient gets the care they need. Use your critical thinking skills. If you believe a physician’s order is in error, say something.
- Make the patient, your partner. Sharing as much information as possible with the patient can help you reduce the risk of errors. If they provide you with information about something like a change in medication dose, double check with their physician.
- Recognize and report flaws in the system. If you can provide proof that the patient was in an environment where the likelihood of error was high, juries are more likely to support claims of negligence on the part of the facility, rather than placing the blame onto you. Don’t be afraid to file incident reports, or to make it clear to superiors that you are not comfortable handling things outside of your scope.
- Consider carrying individual malpractice insurance. As a nurse, you can actually carry individual malpractice insurance, which can help protect you in the event of a lawsuit.
Medical malpractice lawsuits can be difficult to support, and they’re not as common as you might think. Although nurses are only a small percentage of the targets of these lawsuits, you actually could be sued individually by a patient or their family. By documenting everything carefully, communicating closely with patients and their families, and reporting flaws in the system you work in, you can minimize your risk of being the target of a financially devastating and career-ending lawsuit.