How nurses can avoid malpractice claims and lawsuits

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When nurses care for multiple patients at a time, it puts them at risk of malpractice claims and lawsuits. Let’s take a look at the most common risks for nurses and how to reduce the chance of a mishap.
A nurse assisting an elderly patient in a hospital room.

Avoiding claims in the first place can help you avoid costly litigation, as well as the risk of damaging your reputation. However, you’ll still need medical malpractice coverage and other types of insurance to stay financially protected. Of course, you're better off just avoiding a malpractice claim in the first place.

What is medical malpractice for a nurse?

For nurses, medical malpractice means failing to provide a standard of care that meets the guidelines of their profession, known as the “duty of care.” It’s the type of medical care that a competent nurse would provide.

If a nurse’s negligence causes a patient injury, pain, suffering, or wrongful death, they could face an expensive malpractice lawsuit from the patient or their loved ones.

According to the National Library of Medicine, to win a medical malpractice case against a medical professional, a medical malpractice attorney must prove that a healthcare provider acted negligently in rendering care, which resulted in an injury.

A patient alleging medical negligence must prove four legal requirements to make a successful claim of medical malpractice:

  • A nurse or doctor had a legal duty to provide care or treatment to the patient.
  • The medical provider breached this duty by failing to adhere to the standards of their profession.
  • There was a causal relationship between this breach of duty and a personal injury of the patient.
  • The existence of damages from the injury that the legal system can provide redress.

Any monetary damages a patient receives from a medical malpractice claim would take into account the patient’s economic losses and non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering.

How do I get nursing malpractice insurance?

It's easy to get free quotes for medical malpractice insurance with Insureon. We'll ask you basic facts about your nursing degree, the type of care you provide, and help you find coverage that matches your unique risks and meets the requirements in your stateContact our dedicated medical malpractice insurance specialist to get started.

“No matter how professional and attentive you are in providing care, you’re still at risk of an expensive malpractice claim and lawsuit,” said Denise Smith, Senior Sales Agent at Insureon. “I can help you find the coverage you need to meet your licensing requirements and keep you financially protected.”

What actions can lead to a malpractice lawsuit against a nurse?

Medication errors, failing to monitor patients, and communication mistakes all add up to considerable risks for nurses. These are the type of mistakes that can lead to a malpractice claim.

Failing to monitor patients

Whether it’s in a nursing home, hospital, doctor’s office, or an outpatient clinic, nurses are supposed to keep track of their patients’ blood pressure and other vital signs, watch for any changes, and report this information to doctors.

Failing to monitor a patient could lead to a misdiagnosis, a patient injury, and a medical malpractice claim. This is especially true if a nurse’s actions cause undue pain and suffering, brain injury, or even death.

Patient monitoring issues that could lead to a malpractice case include:

  • Bedsores
  • Infections
  • Falls
  • Undiagnosed strokes and heart attacks
  • Failing to summon a doctor when necessary
  • Failing to provide adequate food to a patient

Medication errors

A medication error can have serious consequences for patients and the nurses who care for them. A 2023 study by the National Library of Medicine reports that 7,000 to 9,000 Americans die each year as a result of medication errors.

A nurse might deliver a medication that a patient is allergic to, give a patient the wrong dosage, the wrong prescription, or fail to deliver a medication altogether. Any of these scenarios could harm a patient and result in a malpractice claim.

The Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy reports that the three most common medication errors are:

  • Dispensing the wrong medication
  • Delivering the wrong dosage strength or dosage form
  • Failing to identify drug interactions or contraindications

Procedural mistakes

For nurses, things like drawing blood, delivering shots, and checking vital signs are a matter of routine. If a nurse makes a procedural mistake that harms a patient, they could face a nursing malpractice claim.

A patient could be harmed by a nurse directly, such as administering a catheter, or as a result of the nurse failing to provide accurate vital signs and other information to a doctor.

While nurses may be tired and overworked, especially if their medical facility is short on staff, this might not offer much of a legal defense if they face a patient lawsuit and a medical malpractice claim.

Medical records

Nurses must ensure that a patient’s medical records are accurate and updated regularly on information such as a patient’s vital signs and overall health, medical procedures, and medications.

A patient’s chart is crucial when doctors review a patient’s records, when transferring care to another nurse, or moving a patient to a different facility.

Nurses also have to review each patient’s records to make sure they’re following a doctor’s instructions and monitoring the patient’s conditions correctly.

Miscommunication

This includes all communications between a nurse and a patient, or between the nurse and other medical staff.

Patients must be kept aware of their conditions and any recommended changes to the care they receive. This includes changes to their medications, their diet, and any physical restrictions or recommendations (such as a patient being told to avoid heavy lifting).

Doctors, medical technicians, and other nurses must also be updated on any changes to a patient’s care and their medical condition.

Lack of informed consent

Nurses must make sure their patients understand all the potential risks and benefits of a medical procedure, prescription, or treatment. They must also get a patient’s approval to these changes and to keep the necessary paperwork.

A patient might sue their medical providers if they’re harmed by a procedure when they weren’t made aware of the risks, or if they’re given a treatment or procedure that they hadn’t agreed to.

Failure to protect

If a patient suffers a physical injury, such as from a fall, they could blame a nurse for failing to prevent it. This would especially be true if a patient is elderly or has some kind of disability that makes a fall both likely and dangerous.

Equipment monitoring

Nurses must verify that all patient monitors, aspirators, ventilators, and other medical equipment is operating correctly. Failure to do so could harm a patient and risk a malpractice lawsuit.

“No matter how professional and attentive you are in providing care, you’re still at risk of an expensive malpractice claim and lawsuit”

Denise Smith, Senior Sales Agent, Insureon

What are some common examples of nursing malpractice cases?

Nursing malpractice claims can lead to an expensive jury verdict, a legal settlement, or even criminal charges. These medical malpractice lawsuits offer a warning to registered nurses and the risks they face on the job.

Failing to notify or change treatment

A jury in Philadelphia awarded a $1.4 million verdict against a nurse practitioner accused of failing to change a patient’s medical treatment after his blood work showed severely high thyroid hormone levels, which ultimately led to the patient’s death at age 30.

According to the lawsuit, the nurse practitioner initially notified the patient he had hyperthyroidism and gave him a prescription to treat this condition. At a follow-up visit, the patient’s blood work revealed severe thyroid levels, but he wasn’t notified of this and his treatment wasn’t changed.

A month later, the patient saw a physician who changed the patient’s medication, recommended testing, and referred him to a specialist but the patient died soon after.

Giving the wrong injection

A nurse in Nashville was found guilty of gross neglect of an impaired adult and negligent homicide involving a 75-year-old woman. The nurse was accused of accidentally injecting the wrong medication, which led to the patient’s death. The nurse could’ve been sentenced to three to six years in prison for the neglect charge, and one to two years for negligent homicide. Instead, she received three years of probation for failing to provide adequate nursing care.

Failure to diagnose

A Pennsylvania jury awarded an $18 million verdict against a nurse practitioner for failing to diagnose a woman’s breast cancer.

The patient visited a medical clinic to report a lump in one of her breasts. A nurse practitioner failed to order an ultrasound or mammogram. Nine months later, when the lump was much larger, the patient discovered she had an advanced form of breast cancer.

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What are the best steps nurses can take to prevent a malpractice lawsuit?

Nurses can best avoid a malpractice claim by communicating effectively with patients and doctors, documenting all medical data, following standards of care, and verifying all patient and drug information before administering prescriptions.

These are the steps that nurses can take to avoid legal trouble:

Communicate with patients

Make sure you explain every procedure, what the process is, and answer a patient’s questions when you obtain their consent for a treatment. Make sure they understand the potential risks of every procedure.

Even on a busy day or when dealing with an unruly patient, do your best to remain calm and keep your composure with patients, doctors, and other medical staff. It’s important that all involved remain focused and communicate effectively with each other to reduce the chance of harming a patient.

Document everything

Everything that concerns a patient’s health should be recorded, such as medications, procedures, vital signs, symptoms, and any changes to their condition. Notes should be written as you’re providing care, or as soon as possible after seeing or treating a patient, with both the time and date recorded.

This not only helps doctors provide better care, it can also help you defend yourself in case of a malpractice lawsuit. Even if you make a mistake, this should be documented. Inaccurate notetaking to cover up a mistake, could be used against you in court.

Enroll in continuing education

Continuing education may be required to maintain your license as a registered nurse, and by the facility where you work. It also allows you to stay on top of medical advances, new treatment methods, and remind you of the best practices of your profession. Taking classes on malpractice prevention can help you reduce your chances of a malpractice claim, while also giving you the tools you need to defend yourself in case one arises.

Keep the doctors informed

As you monitor your patients and check their health, make sure you keep the attending physician informed of each patient’s condition. If you notice any changes in a patient’s vital signs, or an adverse reaction to medication or treatment, notify a doctor immediately.

The medical standards of your profession and the medical facilities where you work must be maintained at all times. If you make a mistake, notify an attending physician or your supervisor so any problems can be addressed before they become a serious issue.

Avoid medication errors

Nurses are at particular risk of a malpractice claim dealing with medication errors, as they’re often the ones administering prescriptions and injections while juggling several patients at once.

Make sure you follow “the five rights” of medication use by verifying that you’re treating the right patient, with the right drug, at the right time, with the right dose, and the right route.

The National Library of Medicine reports that one cause of medication errors is the confusion caused by decimal points. If a dosage is written as 2.0 versus 2 or .2 instead of 0.2 it could easily be misread and lead to a patient receiving the wrong dosage. Putting a zero in front of decimal points can reduce the chance of a mistake.

Other ways you can reduce the chance of a medication error include:

  • Inspect drug labels before administering.
  • Verify patient procedures.
  • Follow procedures.
  • Watch for adverse reactions.
  • Inspect equipment and rooms regularly.
  • Verify information on handwritten prescriptions before administering.

How do I get nursing malpractice insurance?

It's easy to get nursing business insurance if you have your information on hand. Our application will ask for basic facts about where you work and the type of care you provide. You can buy a policy online and get a certificate of insurance with Insureon in three easy steps:

  1. Complete a free online application
  2. Compare insurance quotes and choose policies
  3. Pay for your policy and download a certificate

For medical malpractice coverage, you can contact our dedicated agent by sending an email to [email protected] or by calling (312) 854-2919. They can help you find insurance quotes for malpractice and other common policies that your practice needs.

Insureon's licensed insurance agents work with top-rated U.S. providers to find the right insurance coverage for your dental practice, whether you work independently or hire employees.

Mike Mosser, Content Specialist

Mike spent several years as a reporter and editor covering politics, crime, and the world financial markets. He’s worked for several newspapers, a financial newswire, and a monthly magazine. As a copywriter, Mike has produced SEO-based content, marketing, public relations, and advertising work for a variety of companies.

Content verified by: Denise Smith, Senior Sales Producer

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