Most people think of medical malpractice as arising when a doctor fails to provide competent treatment or services. However, it also can arise when a nurse fails to meet the standard of their profession, and a patient is harmed as a result. A nursing malpractice claim largely resembles a medical malpractice claim against a doctor. The patient likely will need to introduce expert testimony to establish the standard of care that a competent nurse would have followed, as well as causation leading to their injuries. The expert may need to be a nurse in the same specialty as the defendant, rather than a doctor or another medical expert. In some cases, the negligent actions may be so obvious that an expert is not required, such as when a nurse deviates from a doctor’s instructions and provides the wrong medication.
Common Types of Nursing Malpractice
As with malpractice by a doctor, any sub-optimal outcome does not necessarily indicate nursing malpractice. There are certain situations in which malpractice typically occurs. One of the most straightforward is when a nurse gives a patient the wrong medication or fails to provide them with medication as a doctor has instructed. Sometimes a nurse will confuse two patients and give each of them the medication intended for the other. Or they may provide the wrong dose of the medication or make a mistake in the process of administering it, such as injecting it at the wrong site.
Another straightforward situation involves the misuse or mishandling of medical equipment. A nurse may drop a heavy piece of equipment on a patient or fail to remove equipment from their body after a surgical procedure. Sometimes the patient’s attorney may need to investigate the situation to determine whether the nurse or the supervising doctor was responsible for a certain oversight during surgery, since many medical professionals may be involved in a procedure.
A more subtle type of nursing malpractice occurs when a nurse fails to take appropriate steps to address an emergency that they notice or should notice. They need to follow protocols provided by the hospital or the doctor for handling emergencies. (If the hospital or doctor has not established protocols, they may be liable for malpractice instead.) A nurse also needs to monitor a patient’s condition carefully and report any problems to the doctor.
Suing Hospitals and Doctors for Nursing Malpractice
In addition to suing the individual nurse, patients often try to sue the hospital at which the nurse worked or the doctor for whom they worked. This can provide access to deeper pockets and larger insurance policies. Nurses usually are employees of hospitals, which means that the hospital can be held indirectly liable for their careless actions if they were acting in the scope of the employment relationship. The patient would need to show that the nurse was an employee, they were on the job at the time, and they were not being supervised by a doctor who was not employed by the hospital.
Other situations may trigger the liability of the attending doctor instead. The doctor may be liable instead of the hospital if they were present when the malpractice occurred, and they had the ability to prevent the malpractice. The hospital still may be liable, however, if the doctor gave improper instructions, and the nurse followed them despite knowing that they were improper. Often, the doctor and the hospital (or their insurers) contest the issue of who is liable separately from the patient’s malpractice case. This may not affect the amount that the patient recovers but only who is responsible for paying it.