1st state passes law to decriminalize medical errors: What orthopedic surgeons should know


Kentucky has become the first state in the U.S. to enact a law decriminalizing medical errors, according to an April 23 report from NPR affiliate WKYU.

This move will protect practitioners, including orthopedic and spine surgeons, in the state who make "honest mistakes" when operating on or working with patients. 

This could help protect the approximately 82% of orthopedic surgeons who have been named as a sole or co-defendant in a malpractice lawsuit at some point in their careers, though under the new law clinicians can still face civil penalties

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed House Bill 159 in April, preventing healthcare workers from being criminally charged for medical errors.

While the law protects healthcare workers from criminal prosecution for mistakes, there are exceptions for intentional harm. 

The bill follows the 2022 case of Nashville,Tenn.-based nurse RaDonda Vaught, who was prosecuted in the death of a 75-year-old patient despite immediately reporting that she administered the wrong medication. 

"That message sends to nursing students, current nurses that if you tell, you're going to be punished for it, which is not how we learn from things, so it absolutely would deter people from reporting their mistakes, and potentially put patients at risks," Pualani Kros, BSN, RN, a nurse and chair of the Kentucky Nurses Association, told WKYU. 

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