Malpractice in Nursing: Definition, Causes, and Examples

The word “nurse” means to nurture someone or something. So “negligent nurse” seems like a paradox!  

We put a lot of trust in nurses. We expect them to be vigilant, compassionate, and responsive to our needs. Most nurses don’t betray our trust. But malpractice in nursing does happen– more often than you might think. An analysis of 4,634 malpractice claims settled between 2018 and 2021 showed that 18% of negligent events involved nurses. 

What is Malpractice in Nursing?

Malpractice in nursing happens when a nurse makes a mistake that harms a patient. Like any other health professional, nurses have to perform their duties with a certain level of care. If they fail to do so, and a patient gets injured, they can be held liable through a malpractice lawsuit. 

The four key elements that constitute nursing malpractice are:

  1. Duty: The nurse’s job is to take care of the patient. 
  2. Breach of duty: The nurse doesn’t do their job correctly. 
  3. Causation: The nurse’s mistake causes the patient to get hurt. 
  4. Damages: The patient suffers because of the nurse’s mistake. 

Examples of nursing malpractice include:

  • Giving the wrong medicine or the wrong amount of medicine.
  • Not checking on the patient enough.
  • Ignoring the doctor’s instructions.
  • Failing to tell other healthcare workers important information about the patient.
  • Not writing down patient care details correctly.
  • Neglecting the patient, which can cause problems like bedsores.

Types of Malpractice in Nursing

Nurses carry out a lot of tasks, from administering medications, to hooking up IVs, to helping patients take that first step out of bed after surgery. So malpractice in nursing can take many forms, including:

  1. Medication Errors: Nurses might give the wrong medicine, the wrong amount, or give it at the wrong time. This can make patients fail to get better. Or in some cases, they can get much worse. 
  1. Failure to Monitor: Nurses need to check patients’ vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure consistently. If they don’t, they might miss signs that the patient is deteriorating. This is particularly crucial in cases like fetal monitoring during child labor, where continuous monitoring of the fetal heart rate can detect early signs of distress.
  1. Improper Use of Medical Equipment: Just think of all the medical equipment in use at hospitals and clinics! Blood pressure monitors, ventilators, IV pumps, suction machines, nebulizers…the list goes on. A helpful machine can become unhelpful, or even deadly, in the hands of a negligent nurse.  
  1. Communication Failures: Nurses must share important information about the patient’s condition with doctors and other nurses. If they don’t, the patient might not get the right treatment.
  1. Documentation Errors: Nurses need to keep accurate records of patient care. Mistakes in these records can lead to wrong treatments.

Neglect: Nurses must provide proper care, like changing bandages and turning patients in bed to prevent sores. Not doing this is neglect and may warrant a medical negligence claim.

A medicine bottle with pills spilling out onto a table.

Examples of Negligent Nurses in Different Medical Settings

Negligent nurses work in all kinds of medical settings. Each setting poses its own unique risks. Take nursing homes for the elderly as an example. That’s a place where most of the caretakers are nurses. Neglect in a nursing home can lead to poor hygiene, bedsores, or malnutrition. 

Texas is one of the five states with the lowest-rated nursing homes. The state was given a rating of 2.55 based on health inspections, staffing, and quality measures. But it’s not just Texas—this is a national problem. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated that 82% of nursing homes examined from 2013-2017 were cited for failing to prevent and control infections. 

Now let’s consider a few other medical settings where nurses work:

  • A hospital nurse might overlook a patient’s symptoms or give the wrong medication.
  • In clinics, a nurse might fail to properly sterilize equipment, causing infections. 
  • In-home healthcare, negligence can result in improper wound care or missed medications. 
  • Emergency rooms can also see negligence through delayed treatment or failure to triage correctly.

Any type of nurse could commit negligence, including:

  • Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs)
  • Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)
  • Registered Nurses (RNs)
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs)

Among nurse types, APRNs have the most autonomy. They can diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, carry out procedures, and more. This can also mean that they present a higher risk of committing negligence. 

Reasons Why Malpractice in Nursing Happens

Does malpractice in nursing occur because nurses don’t care about patients? Not usually. More often, it’s due to one or a combination of these reasons:

  • Inadequate staffing leads to overworked, tired nurses who are more likely to make mistakes.
  • Poor training, or lack of continued education, which can lead to outdated or incorrect practices.
  • Poor communication among healthcare team members, which can cause misunderstandings and mistakes.
  • Systemic issues, such as flawed protocols or lack of proper equipment.
  • Personal factors, such as fatigue, burnout, and stress.
A victim of nursing malpractice meets with a lawyer to discuss their case and potential legal action.

Can I Sue a Negligent Nurse?

You can sue a negligent nurse just like any other health professional. However, the nurse’s actions (or inaction) have to meet the legal definition of malpractice. To find out if you have a case, contact our expert legal team, at no cost to you.