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Kentucky becomes first state to decriminalize medical errors

Mary Meehan

Kentucky nurses are feeling a sense of relief over a new law shielding them from criminal liability for medical errors.

Before the legislative session ended last week, Gov. Andy Beshear signed a bill that prohibits healthcare providers from being prosecuted when honest mistakes are made on the job.

Kentucky has become the first state to enact a law preventing healthcare workers from being criminally charged for medical errors.

During the legislative session that ended last week, Gov. Andy Beshear signed HB 159, which prohibits healthcare providers from being criminally charged when honest mistakes are made on the job.

The bill follows a 2022 Tennessee case in which a nurse was convicted of criminally negligent homicide after a patient died from a medical error.

RaDonda Vaught, the former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse, immediately reported that she injected the wrong medication, but was still prosecuted in the death of the 75-year-old patient.

“That message sends to nursing students, current nurses that if you tell, you’re going to be punished for it, which is not how we learn from things, so it absolutely would deter people from reporting their mistakes, and potentially put patients at risks, said Pualani Kros, a nurse at The Medical Center in Bowling Green.

Kros also chairs the local chapter of the Kentucky Nurses Association.

The prosecution in Tennessee prompted fears that it could set a precedent of criminalizing medical mistakes, which are generally handled by professional licensing boards or civil courts.

The outcome of the case also raised concerns about hiring and retaining nurses in an industry already dealing with a worker shortage.

Vaught avoided jail time, but lost her nursing license and is serving three years of probation on the felony conviction.

While the new Kentucky law protects nurses from criminal prosecution for mistakes, there are exceptions for intentional harm. Nurses can also still face civil penalties for errors.

Vaught is scheduled to speak in Bowling Green Tuesday at 6:00 p.m. at the WKU Health Sciences Building on the Medical Center campus. The event is closed to the general public.
Copyright 2024 WKU Public Radio. To see more, visit WKU Public Radio.

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