When does Negligence Become Criminal?

by Elizabeth A. Kaveny and Jeffrey J. Kroll

As Medical Negligence attorneys, as unfortunate as it is, we see malpractice in its truest forms. But when does negligent conduct of a healthcare professional become criminal? For many of our clients, it would suppose that their individual cases have a criminality inherent to them, but the statute stands as ‘did the health practitioner intend to cause damage?’ as the caveat.

Perhaps this latest case, where a nurse from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, RaDonda Vaught, in court this week on charges of reckless homicide and felony abuse of an impaired adult for the killing of Charlene Murphey, a 75-year-old patient who died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Dec. 27, 2017, might be the exception. The Nashville Board of Nursing has long since revoked her RN license, ending her nursing career, but the Nashville DA’s office is focused on the criminal charges of what went wrong.

The patient was prescribed Versed, a sedative intended to calm her before being scanned in a large, MRI-like machine. But Vaught accidentally grabbed Vecuronium, a powerful paralyzer, which stopped the patient’s breathing and left her brain dead before the error was discovered. The deadly error began when Vaught typed in ‘VE’ to the electronic medical cabinet, without referring to the drug by its generic name, Midazolam. When the cabinet did not yield the drug, Vaught entered an override that unlocked a much larger swath of medications, including Vecuronium. She then inserted a needle into the Vecuronium which should have allowed her to see the words ‘paralyzing agent’ clearly.

Overrides are a usual part of care in the hospital system as with Vanderbilt. But Vaught’s disregard of the warning signs has brought suspicion from the medical community as well as the legal one. “This is a horrific mistake that cost Ms. Murphey her life,” says Elizabeth Kaveny, Managing Partner for Kaveny & Kroll Trial Lawyers in Chicago, who are not associated with this case. “We MUST have a stopgap which prevents lethal medications from being delivered ‘on accident’, rather looked over by a pharmaceutical specialist before being dispensed.”

Jeffrey Kroll, Partner with Kaveny & Kroll, cites other cases as having fallen under the criteria of criminal negligence. “Medications, as well as procedures, done with a seeming disregard for the outcome, can end up not only as med malpractice but criminal negligence as well. While this particular case has the nursing communities concerned that the same thing could happen to them, it is imperative that every precaution and double-checks occur before these types of errors occur. These types of fatal accidents should instead be the bar under which cases are measured.”

Elizabeth Kaveny is also serving as Chicago’s Ambassador to The Patient Safety Movement (www.patientsafetymovement.org). The Patient Safety Movement is an organization of hospitals, physicians and other professionals who share the mission of focusing to eliminate preventable harm and death in healthcare across the world by creating a sense of urgency and unifying humanity.