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Have There Been Any Cases of Nurses Suing for Violence in the Workplace?

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Dear Nancy,

Have there been any cases of nurses suing for violence in the workplace? It seems like a lot of behavior goes unchallenged in nursing.


Nancy Brent replies:

Dear Art,

Unfortunately, nurses can experience violence directed against them in the workplace. Some violence against nurses ? verbal and physical ? originates from staff. This type of violence has resulted in some suits filed by the nurse victim against the staff offender, and the nurse has been successful. You can research these cases on the Internet by placing in your search bar, as examples, Violence in the Workplace, Violence against Employees by Fellow Employees, and Violence in Healthcare.

Nurses have also sued patients for whom they were caring for and from whom an injury occurs, albeit with varying results. In one reported case, Mary and Emmanuel Berberian v. Diana Lynn et al (New Jersey 2004), Plaintiffs Mary Berbarian, a head nurse in a long-term care facility, and her husband, Emmanuel Berberian, sued Edmund Gernannt and his estate (and others) for injuries sustained by Ms. Berberian from Mr. Gernannt while he was an involuntary patient committed to Bergen Pines County Home due to ?senile dementia, Alzheimer?s type.?

While a patient at Bergens Pine, Mr. Gernannt became increasingly agitated and assaultive toward staff and was transferred to the acute geriatric psychiatric unit. Ms. Berberian, as a head nurse with 20 years experience working with Alzheimer?s patients, knew of Mr. Gernannt?s diagnosis and his prior agitation and combative behavior towards staff.

One evening, Mr. Garnannt tried to leave the unit and set off the alarm on the unit. One staff RN tried to get the resident to return to the unit, but he began hitting her. The RN left, and Ms. Berberian approached the resident and extended her hand to help him back to his room. Mr. Gernannt grabbed her hand, pulled her toward him, pushed her back, and Ms. Berberian fell. The fall resulted a broken right leg.

Ms. and Mr. Berberian filed a complaint against the patient and others, alleging that the patient was ?negligent, careless, and reckless? when he hit the nursing supervisor. The standard of care used for the patient under this negligence analysis was whether his conduct was what other reasonable, objective persons would do. Obviously, at issue was whether this patient, who was mentally incompetent, should have his behavior compared to this standard.

The jury returned a verdict for the defendant and the plaintiffs appealed. The appellate court affirmed the trial court verdict. The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the appellate court decision, albeit on modified grounds. After a lengthy analysis of negligence law and mental competence and incompetence, the Court held that when a person selects a profession like nursing, the individual accepts the risk that may occur when professionally caring for patients, including those who have poor mental health. Mentally incompetent patients owe no duty of care, the court opined, to protect paid caregivers from an injury suffered while the caregiver is providing care to the patient. Therefore, the Court continued, Ms. Berberian could not recover for her injury due to the patient?s conduct, ?when the conduct is, in part, the reason for the caregiver?s role.?


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is an attorney in private practice in Wilmette, Ill. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal or any other advice. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.