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Legal Nursing Issues Explained

Legal Nursing Issues Explained

Elizabeth Rudolph, JD, MSN, RN

Q: How can I be responsible for a bad patient outcome when I barely knew the patient? Am I responsible for a patient’s bad outcome when several others also took care of the patient? Why am I being sued when the patient was well and discharged from my floor a week ago? I am only the HMO “Call A Nurse”, how can I be responsible when I told the patient to go to the Emergency Department?

A: These commonly asked questions often stem from a malpractice suit involving the negligent care of a patient that caused an adverse outcome. Traditionally, patients sued only hospitals and doctors for negligence leading to bad patient outcomes, but today more and more nurses find themselves also involved in these legal battles. While malpractice was the first legal assault affecting the practice of nursing, employment and other issues shortly followed.

Q: I know I could be sued in a civil lawsuit, but I heard there are other kinds of lawsuits I could be involved in as well. Could you explain those?

A: Three of the most common areas of the law that may affect any professional such as yourself include civil law, criminal law, and agency law.

First, civil law relates to law describing the private rights and responsibilities of individuals. The “plaintiff” initiates the lawsuit against the “defendant”. Civil lawsuits may involve actions in contracts, property and torts.

Torts involve a private or civil wrong, causing an injury as a result of one disregarding a duty they had to another. Society’s expectations of how people should interact often define their duty, and tort lawsuits generally involve personal injuries. While torts are not criminal acts, they may resemble or involve actions similar to criminal acts, which would be punished in a separate legal action. In civil law, a defendant may be found liable (only criminal law uses the term guilty) for his or her actions and be forced to pay money to the plaintiff for the damages he or she caused. Nursing malpractice and employment actions, involve civil laws.

Criminal law relates to laws dealing with crimes and their punishments. The government, either state or federal, brings a charge against the defendant. In criminal law, the defendant may be found guilty for his or her actions and be forced to pay a monetary fine to the government, serve a jail or prison sentence, or both. The goal of criminal law is punishment, not monetary compensation as in civil lawsuits.

Finally, agency law arises from the legislative branch of government. Agency law cases usually involve the monitoring and managing of certain areas of regulation, such as the State Board of Nursing. Patients may bring complaints regarding nursing care to the State Board and it may discipline nurses, however the patient does not recover any money.

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