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Should Texas Nurses Be Worried about Criminal Negligent Homicide Charges?

The prosecution of a nurse in Tennessee for negligent homicide has raised alarm in the medical community. Nurses and other concerned medical professionals have protested the prosecution, which resulted in a guilty verdict and three years of probation. They claim that charging nurses for medical errors will create an incentive to hide mistakes, which could compromise patient safety.

According to media reports, nurse RaDonda Vaught mistakenly gave a 75 year-old patient vecuronium instead of the sedative Versed. This mistake led to bleeding in the patient’s brain and breathing problems. Prosecutors claimed the error wasn’t a simple mistake but was instead a criminal act.

Though nurse Vaught didn’t give the wrong medication intentionally, her error still qualified as criminally negligent homicide. Texas also has this statute on the books at Penal Code Section 19.05. Should nurses in Texas be concerned that they might face criminal charges for medical mistakes?

A Closer Look at Criminally Negligent Homicide

When most people think of homicide, they think of murder—a person hiding in the closet to shoot their ex-wife or ex-boyfriend, or someone intentionally running over someone with their car. That type of intentional act can support a murder charge, which is the most serious type of homicide in Texas.

With criminally negligent homicide, by contrast, the defendant doesn’t intentionally try to kill the victim. Instead, under Penal Code Section 6.03(d), a person is criminally negligent when they know or should know of a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” that death could result from their actions, but their conduct is a “gross deviation” from what we would expect from careful people.

What does this mean for medical professionals? For one, it means that you should know when there is a substantial risk of giving the wrong medication and having a fatal, adverse reaction. You must then use care to prevent it from happening.
A good way to think of criminal negligence is that the defendant was especially careless. It is negligence above and beyond ordinary mistakes and errors.

Is Gross Negligence in the Eye of the Beholder?

Some people might think that Ms. Vaught’s mistake isn’t any more serious or reprehensible than other errors medical professionals make. This is why many nurses are on edge about this prosecution in Tennessee. The line between simple negligence and gross negligence is hard to discern. The fuzziness gives prosecutors a lot of leeway to bring criminal mistakes for medical errors.

Certainly, the fact that someone died doesn’t mean a person was automatically criminally negligent. If you back up out of a parking spot and neglect to check the rearview mirror, you might run over a small child walking behind your car. But prosecutors might not bring charges for this type of error.

Concerned Professionals Should Contact Tad Nelson

It’s difficult to know if the prosecution in Tennessee is a one-off or the start of a nationwide trend. Certainly, those professionals who are afraid they have made a mistake should contact a Galveston criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Our firm offers free consultations to those facing charges or worried that a prosecution is possible.