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Should Medical Errors Be Criminalized?

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

It may seem like an odd question to pose since the vast majority of medical errors, including medication errors and wrong site surgeries are prosecuted civilly.  However, one such case in Tennessee resulted in criminal charges against a nurse who dispensed the wrong medication for an MRI and left the patient paralyzed and eventually killed her.  The nurse was charged criminally with 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.

Four years ago, inside the most prestigious hospital in Tennessee, nurse RaDonda Vaught withdrew a vial from an electronic medication cabinet, administered the drug to a patient, and somehow overlooked signs of a terrible and deadly mistake.

The patient was supposed to get 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 case hinges on the nurse’s use of an electronic medication cabinet, a computerized device that dispenses a range of drugs. According to documents filed in the case, Vaught initially tried to withdraw Versed from a cabinet by typing “VE” into its search function without realizing she should have been looking for its generic name, midazolam. When the cabinet did not produce Versed, Vaught triggered an “override” that unlocked a much larger swath of medications, then searched for “VE” again. This time, the cabinet offered vecuronium.

Vaught then overlooked or bypassed at least five warnings or pop-ups saying she was withdrawing a paralyzing medication, documents state. She also did not recognize that Versed is a liquid but vecuronium is a powder that must be mixed into liquid, documents state.

Ultimately, Vaught was convicted in the 2017 death of a patient due to an inadvertent medication swap was sentenced Friday to serve three years probation and will serve no jail time.

Medical malpractice occurs with more frequency than we’d like to think.  Human error, an understaffed healthcare facility, long hours, and distractions all contribute to medical malpractice.  As in the Tennessee case, often these errors end in tragedy and loss of life.

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