RaDonda Vaught gets 3 years probation for fatal medication error

RaDonda Vaught, a former nurse convicted of a fatal medication error, was sentenced to three years of supervised probation May 13. She received a deferred sentence, meaning charges could be wiped from her record pending successful completion of probation. 

Ms. Vaught, 38, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult for a fatal medication error she made in December 2017 after overriding an electronic medical cabinet as a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. The error, in which  vecuronium, a powerful paralyzer, was administered instead of the sedative Versed, led to the death of 75-year-old Charlene Murphey. Ms. Vaught faced up to eight years in prison. 

Davidson County criminal court Judge Jennifer Smith said the court in its sentencing considered Ms. Vaught's offense was not motivated by any intent to violate the law, and that she will "never again be in a position to repeat this fatal error."

"She has been stripped of her nursing license and started a new livelihood outside of healthcare," Ms. Smith said. "She immediately and consistently accepted responsibility for her actions and credibly expressed remorse in court." 

Videos shared by WTVF reporter Jason Lamb showed a crowd of nurses outside the courthouse cheering as the judge read the sentencing. 

The judge said practice and protocol changes to prevent similar errors from occurring in medical settings that have arisen as a result of this case were "at least some positive aspect of this event."

Ms. Smith also addressed the Murphey family's loss, saying "nothing that happens here today can reverse that loss or ease that pain." 

"I didn't get to say bye to my mom. I didn't get to give her a hug or a kiss. My dad suffers every day from this," Gary Murphey, Ms. Murphey's son, said during the hearing. 

Ms. Vaught's case has spurred a national outcry from nurses who argued the ruling sets a dangerous precedent for the profession and could discourage nurses from speaking up about errors. Images shared by WSMV reporter Ryan Breslin show hundreds of nurses gathered outside the courthouse on the morning of May 13 to show their support for Ms. Vaught. 

In remarks shared with the court during her sentencing proceeding, Ms. Vaught expressed deep remorse for the medical error. 

"I have lost far more than just my nursing license and a career," she said. "I will never be the same person. When Ms. Murphey died, a part of me died with her. … Words alone will never fully express the remorse and sorrow for my actions. I am forever haunted by my role in her untimely passing."

Ms. Vaught also voiced concerns over what her case means for clinicians and patient safety reporting, mirroring warnings from medical organizations such as the American Nurses Association, the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement

"This sentencing is bound to have an effect on how [nurses] proceed both in reporting medical errors, medication errors, raising concerns if they see something they feel needs to be brought to someone's attention," she said. "I worry this is going to have a deep impact on patient safety." 

In a statement released after the sentencing, the ANA said it had been working with Ms. Vaught and her attorney and had wrote a letter to the judge that  requested leniency for the former nurse. The letter was submitted into evidence on Ms. Vaught's behalf. 

"The letter expresses, from a professional and nursing perspective, legal reasons why we would humbly request leniency," the ANA said. "We were compelled to take this action because we all see ourselves in Vaught. Nurses see themselves in Vaught; our peers and colleagues and healthcare professionals beyond nursing see themselves in Vaught." 

The American Hospital Association in a statement also expressed support of the sentencing. 

"We are pleased that the judge showed leniency in the sentencing of a healthcare professional who made a medical error," said Robyn Begley DNP, RN, chief nursing officer of the AHA. "When errors happen hospitals and health systems need open lines of communication to identify and understand the series of events so they can update patient safety systems to further prevent errors. Criminal prosecutions will discourage health caregivers from coming forward with their mistakes and will complicate efforts to retain and recruit more people into nursing and other health care professions that are already understaffed."

During the sentencing, Ramona Smith, a special agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, also testified about a separate perjury case the state has brought against Ms. Vaught. In August 2020, Ms. Vaught allegedly lied about facing any indictments on a background check required to purchase a firearm, according to The Tennessean. That trial is pending.

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