Criminal liability: What are the risks for medical professionals?

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Medical professionals were held criminally liable in 2 widely publicized cases. This analysis enhances understanding of the legal implications for practice.



Medical professionals are well aware that civil liability (malpractice) may incur when a patient is harmed because of carelessness (negligence). Recent criminal charges against physicians and a nurse, however, have called medical professionals’ attention to the fact that they also may face criminal charges for inappropriate practice.

We cite 2 cases in which criminal liability resulted from bad medical practice. In both instances, there was considerable concern among medical professionals that criminal charges for making a mistake would make it difficult to practice without fear of criminal charges. One concern is that criminal charges could drive good people out of the profession or make them too cautious.1

We look more closely at those 2 cases in which criminal liability was imposed. These cases are outliers. Relatively few criminal cases against medical professionals are based on the quality of care. (There are, however, more criminal charges related to fraudulent billing and other insurance fraud, kickbacks, Medicare and Medicaid abuse, and the like.2) At the same time, the criminal law does not stop at the front door of a clinic or hospital.3 When medical professionals engage in seriously inappropriate health care conduct that directly harms someone, criminal liability may result.4

Anatomy of a crime

Crimes generally require a specific mental state (mens rea) and an act (actus reus). The law specifies the mental state required for conviction. It can range from premeditation—once commonly called “malice aforethought”—to negligence. The mens rea requirement is an essential element of the crime—as we will see in the discussion of the prescription drug cases. A few offenses do not require even negligence, but overwhelmingly, crimes require something more than simple negligence.5

The act requirement is generally obvious, such as firing a gun, driving while intoxicated, or recklessly giving inappropriate medication to a patient. It may include “attempts,” crimes where an act was not completed. For example, attempted murder or conspiracy to commit do not require a completed offense, only intent plus overt acts toward carrying out the crime. Similarly, the wrongful act usually has to produce some harm, but again there are exceptions (attempts). To obtain a conviction, the prosecution must prove all of the elements of the crime, including the required mens rea, beyond a reasonable doubt.6

With this general background, we turn to the first case, in which the charge was a form of homicide. Please note that the following case description was derived from news descriptions of the case, because juries do not publish opinions concerning their conclusions and court documents are unavailable. The public reports therefore may contain factual gaps and errors.

CASE 1 Patient dies after nurse administers wrong drug

RaDonda Vaught, a 38-year-old experienced registered nurse employed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in the intensive care unit (ICU), was providing care for a 76-year-old patient who was admitted to VUMC’s ICU in December 2017 in association with a brain injury. The brain injury involved a fall with resultant subdural hematoma. In preparation for a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to assess the patient’s injury, the physician team prescribed the sedative Versed (midazolam) because of the patient’s claustrophobia. During the course of treatment, Ms. Vaught inadvertently administered the wrong drug, a fatal dose of the muscle relaxant vecuronium, to the patient, which resulted in the patient being unable to breathe. Apparently, Ms. Vaught had been unable to find the midazolam and disengaged a safeguard, proceeding into override mode, and thus vecuronium was dispensed. By the time the error was noticed, the patient was already in cardiac arrest with resultant brain damage (partial brain death). The patient died soon thereafter.

How this medication error occurred

The medication error occurred when Ms. Vaught overrode a computer in the medical system when she could not find the “Versed” entry and typed in “VE,” which was the abbreviation for vecuronium. The prosecutors in the case stated that she failed to distinguish that vecuronium is dispensed as a powder and Versed as a liquid formula. The vecuronium has a red cap, which warns that it is a paralyzing agent. Ms. Vaught ignored these red flags, according to the prosecutors. Furthermore, the lawsuit filing documented her discussion that she was “distracted with something” at the time and admitted to overriding the medication warning.

Continue to: The charges in this case...


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