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Nurses Benefit From Kentucky Law Decriminalizing Medical Errors

Medical errors law

Honest mistakes can happen in any job or industry. But for nurses, a mistake can mean criminal punishment. 

The fear of legal and criminal repercussions can hinder a nurse’s ability to make quick decisions in critical situations, building stress and anxiety.

But in Kentucky, healthcare workers now have a shield against medical errors thanks to a new law signed this spring. The legislation is the first of its kind — it means nurses and providers are now protected from criminal punishments for honest mistakes made while providing patient care.

Kentucky law decriminalizes medical errors

House Bill 159 (HB 159), signed into law by Governor Andy Beshear on March 26, 2024, is groundbreaking in its approach.

It grants criminal immunity to healthcare providers, including nurses, doctors, and other medical staff, for unintentional errors made while providing patient care. The law makes Kentucky the first state in the U.S. to enact such legislation.

The bill, though only one page long, takes a major step in supporting and protecting healthcare workers. 

Main takeaways of HB 159: 

  1. Who is covered: The bill says it applies to healthcare providers, which is defined as an employee of a health facility and/or a person providing health services – that includes all levels of nurses.
  2. Criminal immunity: Healthcare providers are now immune from criminal liability for harm to a patient from a health services-related act or omission.
  3. Exception: The bill will not provide immunity in cases of “gross negligence or wanton, willful, malicious, or intentional misconduct.”

HB 159 passed both through Kentucky’s Senate and House of Representatives with unanimous votes.

The RaDonda Vaught case connection

The Kentucky law comes after a years-long national debate sparked by the criminal conviction of a nurse for an error she made at work.

The nurse, RaDonda Vaught, was found guilty of negligent homicide and gross neglect of an impaired adult by a Tennessee jury in 2022. Vaught injected a 75-year-old woman with the wrong medication, causing the woman to die. 

The incident happened at Vanderbilt University Medical Center at the end of 2017. Vaught, an RN, had worked at the hospital for two years.

The patient, Charlene Murphey, was admitted to the hospital for a subdural hematoma. Vaught was instructed to administer a sedative but accidentally administered a paralyzing drug instead.

Murphey died the following day, and Vaught was fired from the hospital in January 2018. Vaught was arrested and charged in 2019. 

In 2021, the Tennessee Department of Health’s Board of Nursing revoked her license. The following year, Vaught was convicted and sentenced to three years’ probation.

The court ruling sent shock waves through the healthcare community as providers grappled with the reality of patient death at the hands of one of their own.

Alice Benjamin, MSN, ACNS-BC, FNP-C, and Chief Nursing Consultant at, discussed the RaDonda Vaught case on an episode of her podcast Ask Nurse Alice.

“We want to acknowledge Charlene Murphey's death,” Benjamin said. “It’s very devastating for the family. We never want to see patient death, especially not one caused by us or one of our colleagues.”

At the same time, many nurses worried that the case would set precedent for similar situations in the future with criminal charges as a probable outcome.

House Bill 159’s impact on nurses

Now that Kentucky has taken the step to decriminalize medical errors, other states could follow. 

The law provides hope for nurses after the Vaught case left many feeling anxious. As front-line caregivers, nurses are often in high-pressure situations making split-second decisions. 

HB 159 provides a safety net — it encourages transparency, learning, and improvement within the healthcare system.

“[Kentucky] has a shortage of nurses, and we need to ensure nurses aren’t leaving the profession for fear of being criminally charged for making a medical error,” the Kentucky Nurses Association said in a release. “Fear of criminal charges can hamper voluntary reporting and cooperation, which is essential so systems and processes can be changed to prevent further errors.”

HB 159 benefits for nurses include:

  1. Reduced fear: Nurses can now focus on patient well-being without a looming fear of legal consequences for unintentional errors or mistakes.
  2. Open communication: Nurses can report incidents freely without worrying about self-incrimination.
  3. Quality improvement: By recognizing that mistakes happen, HB 159 encourages a culture of continuous learning and quality improvement at all levels of nursing.

HB 159 is landmark legislation for the nursing community. It acknowledges the complexities of healthcare and the dedication of nurses and other providers while striking a balance between accountability and compassion. Both healthcare providers and patients can benefit from the new standard.

In Kentucky, nurses can now continue their vital work with greater confidence and focus on delivering the best care possible.

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