What do I need to know about legal protection for nurses?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I have recently become a registered nurse. I know the society is litigious and at some point in my career I may be sued. What do I need to know about legal protection for nurses, and if I do get sued who should I contact?”

Given the complexity of nursing and the specialized skills needed to provide care for patients and the risk of harm to patients if nurses are not prepared and competent, the state has imposed reasonable laws to regulate the field of nursing.

Laws are outlined in the nursing practice act (NPA) with a board of nursing created in each state. The board of nursing is authorized to regulate nursing and does the following:

  • Defines the authority of the board of nursing, its composition and powers
  • Defines nursing and the boundaries of the scope of nursing practice
  • Identifies types of licenses and titles
  • States the requirements for licensure
  • Protects titles
  • Identifies the grounds for disciplinary action

Legal information and why it's important for you

Now, you may believe this legal information has little to do with you, but in fact, it’s critical that you understand the current laws and the governing practices of your state. In fact, if you were to get into to trouble and provide substandard care, the courts would not care. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse! 

By understanding how you are legally required to deliver care to your patients, based on the embodiment of collective knowledge for what is required of the average nurse, you can minimize the risk that you will ever be involved in a malpractice case.

What is medical malpractice?

Medical malpractice is defined as “negligence, misconduct, or breach of duty by a professional that results in injury/damage to a patient.” (Reising & Allen, 2007) Malpractice can occur while a nurse is using equipment, if they fail to property document or communicate with their patient, during an assessment, or while monitoring a patient.

Like other medical malpractice claims, however, claimants can only win their medical malpractice case if they prove all of the legal elements for their case. Specifically, they must prove the nurse had a duty of care towards them, the nurse breached their duty, the patient was injured due to the breach, and there was actual injury or loss.

Proving breach of duty- the second element of the injury case

Proving duty is generally straight forward if a nurse is assigned to provide care for a patient. Breach of duty, however, introduces the element of “standard of care” which is not clearly defined in statutes or laws but is generally established by evaluating what the “average reasonable nurse, practicing in the same or similar circumstances and delivering care to the same or similar patient would have done."

If the plaintiff provides evidence that your actions differ from the definition outlined above, they may be able to prove breach of duty. Then to win their case they simply need to prove that your breach of duty resulted in their injury or loss.

How do I minimize my risk as a nurse?

We’ve already mentioned that ignorance is not a defense against a medical malpractice claim; it is important to understand the law. Other steps you should take to protect yourself from a lawsuit can include the following:

  • Communicate openly and factually with your patients
  • Follow up when you have given tasks to others to complete
  • Understand how to assess your patients according to the physician’s orders
  • Stay up to date in your field of practice
  • Understand your state’s laws
  • Document all nursing care factually and thoroughly
  • Promptly file a report if you have to deviate from the assumed standard care

What to do if you are sued?

If you are served with a complaint letter that states that you will be sued, you need to immediately contact your employer or the legal department for your hospital. If you are an independent contractor or the injury occurred outside of your regular employment, talk to a medical malpractice lawyer.

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