Kentucky to Become First State to Decriminalize Medical Mistakes

 

Kentucky has become the first state to decriminalize medical mistakes, with Governor Andy Beshear signing House Bill 159 into law. This legislation ensures that healthcare providers cannot be criminally charged for honest errors made during the delivery of care. The bill was motivated by the high-profile case of RaDonda Vaught, a Tennessee nurse convicted in 2022 for a medication error that resulted in a patient’s death. This conviction raised concerns within the healthcare community about the chilling effect on error reporting and transparency.​​

The new law aims to encourage voluntary reporting and cooperation in updating medical systems and processes by removing the fear of criminal prosecution. It has received broad support from medical associations such as the Kentucky Nurses Association and the Emergency Nurses Association, which argue that criminalizing mistakes contributes to the ongoing nursing shortage and undermines patient safety.

Transcript

Kentucky is set to become the first state in the U.S. to shield healthcare professionals from criminal prosecution for making medical mistakes. House Bill 159 was signed by the governor last month. WKYT’s Kelsey Soto spoke with some champions of the bill as well as a lawyer about the legal liabilities.

Soon, medical workers in Kentucky will be off the hook criminally for honest mistakes made on the job. Some lawyers say this aligns the state better with other professions. According to one lawyer:

“This isn’t new, so this is essentially an immunity statute that a lot of either governmental employees, cabinet workers, police officers, they enjoy at least some forms of immunity.”

Theresa Villaran, a nurse with over 30 years of experience, hopes this will help providers feel more comfortable reporting errors so they can be corrected. She commented:

“It’s really important for nurses to not be afraid, and we’re seeing a lot of nurses leave nursing. Some because of that fear. They don’t want to be, you know, charged with a felony.”

The Kentucky Nurses Association strongly supported House Bill 159. Kentucky is home to about 90,000 nurses. The association has received calls from other state nurse associations interested in similar legislation.

“We really worked hard. It was a big priority for us. So it’s not something that came easy. And it’s really kind of surprising because a lot of bills don’t get past the time you know that they get put out there.”

However, this law does not protect healthcare workers acting with intentional harm, such as operating under the influence. Civil penalties and personal injury lawsuits for civil damages remain possible. Nevertheless, this law removes the burden of potential jail time for healthcare professionals.

Mistakes can still be handled and reviewed by the Kentucky Medical Board and Board of Nursing, which can determine any necessary actions.

The ceremonial signing of House Bill 159 will be held on May 17 at the Kentucky Nursing Association’s Legislative Conference in Louisville.