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Lawsuits That Don’t Involve Patient Care Can Still Involve Nurses


Most of my blogs over the years have examined conduct directly related to nursing practice and focused on nurses who have been named in professional negligence lawsuits or who were called as expert witnesses. But sometimes nurses have a role in a lawsuit that has nothing to do with patient care, as the following case illustrates.

Particulars of the case

A mother, accompanied by her aunt, was visiting her daughter who was a patient at a medical center, when a janitor entered the patient's room. The two visitors left the room and spoke with a nurse in the hallway. The floor of the patient's room was dry before they stepped out. After the janitor left the room, the two visitors went back in. One of the visitors slipped and fell when she reentered the room. When the visitor who fell attempted to get back up, she noticed a puddle of water on the floor. She wiped the puddle up with a bedsheet. There was no orange cone or other warning device present to alert anyone entering the room that the floor was wet. After the fall, a staff nurse asked the janitor whether he was aware that cones or other indicators should have been placed to indicate that the floor was wet. The janitor didn't respond. The injured visitor filed a personal injury lawsuit based on premises liability against the medical center, alleging the medical center was negligent for not keeping the premises in a reasonably safe condition and for not warning visitors of unsafe conditions. The medical center filed a motion to strike the plaintiff's evidence and added an allegation that the woman was contributorily negligent because the puddle of water was an open and obviously dangerous condition. The trial court granted the motion, but the injured woman filed an appeal.

The appellate court's decision

After the appellate court reviewed all the records, it decided that there was reversible error in the trial court's granting of the motion to strike. The appellate court agreed with the injured woman's argument that she proved a prima facie case (true or valid at first impression) of negligence against the medical center -- that she presented sufficient evidence to possibly conclude that the janitor either caused the water to be on the floor or should have recognized the puddle of water and either removed it or warned visitors of its presence. In addition, the injured woman presented testimony from a nurse at the medical center that it is standard practice for a janitor at the medical center to put out a cone or other warning device after the floors are mopped or wet. The court pointed out that since the janitor was an agent of the medical center, his negligence and knowledge are assigned to the medical center. The medical center's other argument that the visitor was contributorily negligent would need to be decided by a jury. Also, the motion to strike was granted before the medical center presented its evidence that might show the visitor's contributory negligence. Therefore its burden of proof had not been met. Thus, the court held, the trial court erred when it determined that the visitor was contributorily negligent. The trial court's order was reversed, and the case was remanded back to the trial court for further consideration in light of the appellate court's order.

Takeaways from the case

What you need to remember is how important your role might be in situations outside of patient care. The first nurse's comment to the janitor about not using a cone within earshot of the injured woman might help the visitor win her case. This lesson is an important one. When you speak to another staff member about any aspect of patient care, especially when your comments are admonishing, you need to do so in a private space where others cannot hear or draw conclusions from what you say. The second nurse's testimony about how it's standard practice at the medical center to display a warning device when liquid solutions are used on the floor was crucial to the appellate court's decision to send the case back to the trial court. The nurse may have been apologizing to the visitor for what occurred, which is understandable. And she couldn't predict that the visitor would file a lawsuit. But nurses must remember that what they say (or do), no matter how routine or appropriate it may seem, could potentially be referred to in a lawsuit. To start a conversation about important issues like this one with your nurse community, download the social networking app.