Dangerous Precedent: Criminal Mistake in the Nursing Industry

Will Brandt, Class of 2022, Belmont Law

For an industry that is understaffed and overworked, should tragic medical errors of nurses result in jail time? As of March 25th, in the Davidson County Criminal Court, that answer appears to be yes. Former nurse, RaDonda Vaught, was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult by a jury.

Vaught, an employee of Vanderbilt University Medical Center needed to sedate a patient for an MRI. Charlene Murphey, age 75, was that patient. The drug that Vaught needed to retrieve for sedation was Versed, generic name Midazolam, which is a benzodiazepine used to help patients relax before minor medical procedures. In this case, the drug was intended to help the patient relax for a PET scan.

When Vaught attempted to retrieve versed at the medicine dispenser, she searched the list of drugs ordered for Charlene Murphey and typed “ve.” Versed did not come up because the machine was programmed to search for the generic name of the drug. Assuming that Versed had not yet been ordered for this patient, Vaught searched outside of what had been ordered for Murphey, and searched “ve” across “all” medications. Searching for medicine outside of what has been ordered for the patient has effectively been considered as overriding the system. Upon the search of “ve” across “all” medications, the medicine generator produced Vecuronium, which she selected. Unfortunately, Vecuronium is not a sedative, but a neuromuscular blocking agent, therefore causing paralysis. Although frequently used in small doses during anesthesia, the dose that Vaught gave to Murphey was fatal.

A hot point in the trial and the media, seems to be this point where Vaught effectively “overrode” the system to search for medications that had not been ordered to Murphey. Rational minds seem to disagree as there are nurses across the country that have followed this trial and support the sentiment of Vaught’s statement that, “Overriding was something we did as a part of our practice every day. You couldn’t get a bag of fluids for a patient without using an override function.” Many nurses see this prosecution as a dangerous precedent. They state that most nurses can think of a time when they made a mistake.

However, other nurses, like David Mancini have a different opinion: “So, I don’t care that she overrode the system, but, here, she violated her first right. She didn’t know the name of the medication she was administering. This is where the first mistake was made, and this is what set the whole situation into motion.”

Regardless of sentiment and public opinion, Vaught has been found guilty of negligent homicide under T.C.A. 39–13–212, which describes criminally negligent homicide as, “Criminally negligent conduct that results in death constitutes criminally negligent homicide.” Criminal negligence being defined in T.C.A. 39–11–106 as referring to: “A person who acts with criminal negligence with respect to the circumstances surrounding that person’s conduct or the result of that conduct when the person ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the accused person’s standpoint.”

Ultimately, the jury in the Davidson County Criminal Court found that Vaught grossly deviated from the standard of care that an ordinary nurse in her position would have used. Are the nurses correct in their assessment of dangerous precedent? Will medical professionals be weary of reporting mistakes, or is her conviction warranted?

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