Medical malpractice cases are far from uncommon. Health care providers face lawsuits and civil charges regularly, and a few are even prosecuted in criminal court each year.
But the case of RaDonda Vaught is one that has captured public attention nationwide.
Shortly after Christmas 2017, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse administered the wrong medication to a patient, resulting in the patient’s death.
Nurses seem to see themselves in Vaught, who was found guilty of gross neglect of an impaired adult and of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Charlene Murphey in a Davidson County court late last month. The latter was a lesser charge than the reckless homicide charge originally brought. The guilty verdict, decided by a jury including multiple health care providers, could mean years in prison.
A joint statement from the Tennessee Nurses Association and American Nurses Association said the verdict sets a “dangerous precedent.”
“The nursing profession is already extremely short-staffed, strained and facing immense pressure — an unfortunate multi-year trend that was further exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic,” the statement reads. “This ruling will have a long-lasting negative impact on the profession.”
Vaught has been vocal about the case following the verdict. Her conversation with nursing advocate @the.nurse.erica on TikTok has 1.3 million views. Nurses from around the country paid for the influencer’s flight to Nashville and a hotel room so she could meet with Vaught and, eventually, Sara Beth Myers, a former federal prosecutor who is running against Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk this year.
In the viral video, Vaught offered advice for those interested in becoming nurses.
“Just remember why you entered this profession in the first place, why you decided you wanted to go to school to be a nurse,” Vaught said. “It’s a scary place that we work in for a lot of reasons. More than just this, more than just the risk of fucking up so terribly to the extent that you could be responsible for someone’s death. There are risks every day in this field. Be cognizant, be diligent at your job, trust your gut and be the voice for change.”
An online petition calling for clemency in her case has garnered nearly 175,000 signatures. Supporters are selling merchandise and collecting donations on Vaught’s behalf, and a rally is planned for May 13, her sentencing date.
Myers has gotten a lot of health care worker support for her stance that she will never try a nurse for medical malpractice in criminal court, instead leaving it to civil courts and professional boards. She accused current DA Funk, who brought the charges against Vaught in the criminal case, of “headline grabbing.” Election Day in the Democratic primary is May 3.
“This has sent a shockwave through the country and hit a nerve in a very crucial time, not only for our city, which is a health care city, but for our country as a whole,” Myers told the Post. “For me, if it is a case of negligence, it should not be pursued criminally, unless it involves a degree of recklessness that is self-induced by the person. For example, if a nurse has been drinking or taking large amounts of drugs that impair that person's judgment, and then they make a fatal error, that's a very different situation.”
Prosecutors said Vaught’s charges were a result of a series of errors: overriding the electronic medicine cabinet when she couldn’t find the right drug, ignoring the difference in size and substance of the drug, ignoring the warning label, administering the drug, leaving the room without monitoring the patient and not scanning the medication into the patient’s file.
Vaught’s nursing license was revoked by the Tennessee Board of Nursing in July 2021 after the nursing board initially chose not to investigate the death. She has taken responsibility for her actions, and her defense cited systemic issues as the reason for the error.
“The proof that we had shows that all of the specific errors that Ms. Vaught made independent of Vanderbilt, the protocols they had set out, like the [medicine cabinet] overrides, just went so far outside of the parameters of her job at the time, and that's what led to this unfortunate event,” assistant DA Chad Jackson told the Post.
VUMC’s Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement status came under scrutiny when, in 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that VUMC failed to report the incident to the Tennessee Department of Health as required by law. Around the same time, the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation got involved.
In contrast to the voices of nurses, the victim’s family has been quiet — mostly because they settled out of court with VUMC, including a nondisclosure agreement. In a 2018 interview with WSMV, Murphey’s children said that their mother would have forgiven Vaught.
This situation with the victim’s family is commonplace in medical malpractice, said Randall Kinnard, a local personal injury and medical malpractice attorney — though he called the Vaught case an outlier.
“This is extremely rare, because most of the time nursing errors are brought in the civil courts, where monetary damages are sought for injuries that occur, and justice is sought that way,” Kinnard said.
Jackson, the prosecutor, told the Post that Murphey’s family was glad to see the outcome. He added that his group at the DA’s office has tried at least five health care providers in criminal court since 2020.
VUMC declined to comment on the case, as did Vaught and her lawyer, Peter Strianse.