Ex-Vanderbilt Nurse Charged with Reckless Homicide Pleads Not Guilty

RaDonda Vaught, the Tennesee nurse charged with reckless homicide, pleaded not guilty when she appeared in court on February 20. The courtroom was packed with nurses who arrived at the arraignment to support her and to express their dismay at the precedent that is being set by criminally charging a nurse for a medication error.

Vaught’s error

In December 2017, Vaught mistakenly injected Charlene Murphy at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre with the powerful paralytic drug Vercuronium which led to the patient’s death. The unfortunate incident was after she overrode the automatic dispensing system by typing in “VE” when she could not find the prescribed sedative, Versed, in the system.

Although Vaught was dismissed after the error, the incident only came under public scrutiny after it was picked up by an inspection of the medical facility by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) a year later. The criminal investigation and charge against Vaught appeared to have been based on the CMS investigation report, which also showed up numerous problems in the systems used at the hospital.

Overwhelming support from nurses

Speaking to the press after the hearing Peter Strianse, Vaught’s attorney, said that the unprecedented criminal charge sets a terrible precedent. “I’ve never seen these many people appear at an arraignment,” he added. “I think it’s a testament to Radonda Vaught how they feel about her and how they feel about the issues in the case.” He also pointed out that the State Board of Nursing had, after an extensive investigation, decided not to discipline Vaught.

One of the biggest sources of support for Vaught is Show Me Your Stethoscope (SMYS). The organization supports nurses beyond the usual role of traditional nurses’ associations, and its motto is “Nurses take care of patients, we take care of nurses. In an online poll conducted by SMYS, nearly 80% of the nurses who responded didn’t believe that Vaught should have been charged.

Janie Garner, Executive Director of SMYS, stressed in an interview after the hearing that criminally charging nurses for errors would prevent them from coming forward when they made a mistake and have a serious impact on patient safety.

She also emphasized that no nurse is exempt from the possibility of making an error. This case placed the profession on a slippery slope – even giving antibiotics late could be held against the nurse if the patient died from their infection the next day.

Garner also explained that SMYS had bullied Vaught into starting a Go Fund Me account to help cover her legal costs. To date over $82,000 has been raised towards the target of $150,000.

Jason Lee, a critical care nurse, wrote that it was deceiving to believe that locking away individuals and hurting institutions financially would end preventable hospital deaths. “Prosecuting health-care workers for errors sets a dangerous precedent: it says that to err is criminal, not human,” he wrote. “Even worse, it lets health-care systems off the hook.”

Support from ANA

The American Nurses Association issued a press statement on the day before Vaught’s court appearance. They emphasized that individual nurses should be held accountable, but that medical errors should be examined through a peer review process. This would lead to system improvements and corrective action to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

“The criminalization of medical errors could have a chilling effect on reporting and process improvement,” the ANA stressed after pointing that the complex and ever-changing health care system was high risk and error-prone.

There is even broad support against the case by the medical profession. The Institute of Safe Medication Practices said in a statement that it was strongly opposed to Vaught’s prosecution.

Support Radonda and the cause

The outcome of Vaught’s case could affect all nurses. An excellent defense is essential to prevent a future surge of criminal prosecutions for medical errors. You can support RaDonda Vaught and the overall cause by donating to her Go Fund Me account. You can also add the “I Stand with RaDonda” frame, available on SMYS Facebook page, to your profile pic or even comment on the page.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

6 thoughts on “Ex-Vanderbilt Nurse Charged with Reckless Homicide Pleads Not Guilty”

  1. If you have ever sent an e-mail or text which, auto-corrected, communicated an entirely different, or at least confusing, message then you have experienced the same innocent mistake this nurse did! This “second victim” prosecution will not prevent future mishaps, only encourage their cover-ups by hospitals and staff for fear of prosecution. “I’v never made a mistake in my life” said nobody ever!

  2. Did she need to scan the patient and the medication at the bedside, prior to administration, or was she providing bedside nursing in a different environment than that? I’m confused how the fail safes didn’t catch this from happening. Why was there even vercuronium in her pyxis? Why wasn’t the medication scanned at the bedside?

    • When on works in these areas medications are generally not scanned. This is not a M/S type floor. Very different atmosphere. Sounds like they put someone in there that is not used to working there. Big mistake on the part of whoever decided that.

  3. It was clearly an emergent situation-most likely a code. Those scanning methods were not being used I’m sure. Just a repeat of the medication and acknowledgement of administration. This could be any of US!! We are cautious, have systems in place, and one situation can change peoples lives forever. Reckless Homicide?? I guess we have to start making patients sign a waiver from the moment they step foot into our healthcare establishments, not just for surgeries. Were it my family member..yes I would sue the hospital, demand some sort of disciplinary action against the RN, go for her License, but criminal prosecution is too far.

    • This was not her area to work. Whoever threw her in there is at fault. Yes she should have excused herself. Yes she should have looked closer at the medication. But those areas do not use scanning for medications given.


Leave a Comment

Share to...