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Health Care Workers in Kentucky Given Criminal Liability Protection for Medical Errors

health care worker

On Mar. 26, 2024, Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear, signed a new law that makes Kentucky the first state to grant criminal immunity to health care providers for unintentionally making medical errors that result in harm to the patient. House Bill 159, received unanimous support from both the Kentucky House and Senate members. The new law protects doctors, nurses, and other workers in the medical field from criminal charges if they make a medical error in “good faith.”1

Although Bill 159 grants immunity for unintentional medical errors, it does not provide workers with immunity for gross negligence, willful, malicious, or intentional misconduct. The bill also does not protect workers from all civil liability, meaning patients can still pursue legal action for medical malpractice.2

State Representative Jason Nemes, who is one of the sponsors of the bill, said that the primary reason for the bill is due to the concerns about prosecuting workers for making errors, such as prescribing the wrong medicine. He stated:

It is a common sense bill. We should not be criminalizing people who are just making mistakes. If people make mistakes, were they reckless? Or making intentional conduct, surely they would still be culpable. This bill does not change that in any way.3

Tennessee Nurse Criminally Convicted After Patient Died from Medical Error

In 2017, RaDonda Vaught, a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, Tennessee, immediately reported that she injected the wrong medication to a 75-year-old female patient, who died.4 In preparation for an MRI, Vaught incorrectly administered vecuronium, which paralyzes breathing prior to a patient being put on a ventilator, instead of giving the patient the sedative Versed® (midazolam)5 as ordered by the doctor, without patient monitoring.

Vaught immediately reported the error. However, VUMC terminated her. A settlement was negotiated with the patient’s family, but VUMC failed to disclose the error and reported the death as from “natural causes.”

In 2022, an anonymous tip prompted a criminal investigation and trial. The prosecution argued for Vaught’s negligence in issuing an override and failure to recognize different medications, but the defense argued that systemic factors at the hospital contributed to the error, such as a missing drug order and a faulty medication dispenser.6

Vaught was subsequently convicted of two felonies for a fatal drug error, and was granted a judicial diversion, which meant that her conviction would be expunged if she completed a three-year probation. Her nursing license was also revoked.7 The conviction raised concerns about future hiring and retaining nurses in an industry that is already experiencing staffing shortages.8

Pualani Kros, a nurse at The Medical Center in Bowling Green, Kentucky and chairwoman of the local chapter of the Kentucky Nurses Association, commented on the Vaught case saying:

That message sends to nursing students, current nurses that if you tell, you’re going to be punished for it, which is not how we learn from things, so it absolutely would deter people from reporting their mistakes, and potentially put patients at risks.9

Bill 159 received considerable support from nursing organizations and advocacy groups in Kentucky. They argued that workers’ fear of criminal charges over making medical errors has been a deterrent for many people considering a medical career in health care and that providing legal protection for workers could make the profession more appealing and help address staffing shortages in Kentucky.10


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Click here to view References:
1 Walker A. KY Grants Criminal Immunity To Healthcare Workers For Medical Mistakes. Nurse.org Apr. 17, 2024.
2 Ibid.
3 Sizemore A. Bill filed that would protect healthcare workers in the event mistakes happen. Mountain News Eastern Kentucky Jan. 31, 2024.
4 Autry L. Kentucky becomes first state to decriminalize medical errors. The Public Radio Service of Western Kentucky University Apr. 23, 2024.
5 Briggs AW. Why the Nurse Gave the Medication That Killed. Briggs & Wholey LLC 2022.
6 Lusk C. et al. Reconsidering the application of systems thinking in healthcare: the RaDonda Vaught case. The British Journal of Anesthesia 29(3): e61-e62.
7 Kelman B. Tennessee nurse convicted in lethal drug error sentenced to three years probation. NPR May. 13, 2022.
8 Autry L. Kentucky becomes first state to decriminalize medical errors. The Public Radio Service of Western Kentucky University Apr. 23, 2024.
9 Ibid.
10 Walker A. KY Grants Criminal Immunity To Healthcare Workers For Medical Mistakes. Nurse.org Apr. 17, 2024.

4 Responses

  1. This will be one more reason not to go to the doctor in Kentucky-cannot trust them to be competent at all.

  2. So Kentucky is the State for horses, not for people. Negligence is negligence and should be punished. Yes, even if there is a Nurses’ shortage, better pay for nurses could resolve that issue.

  3. To imagine how this is going to turn out, just look at what giving abortionists, drug companies and Police Officers qualified immunity, has led to. Human life has been cheapened to being counted as less than an animal in the United States.

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