Legal Issues in Nursing: Concepts and Terms

Instructor: Kendra Kennedy
This lesson will introduce you to the basic legal concepts and terminology of today's professional nursing. We'll go over law, jurisprudence, incompetence, liability, negligence, and malpractice.

Nursing Responsibilities

When you think of the very first nurses, what image comes to mind? Dress-like uniforms and bedpans? This imagery is the result of history, when nurses used to work in a strictly task-oriented role.

Now, what about nurses today? Would it surprise you that many people describe nurses and doctors the same way, often times having a difficult time distinguishing them in the medical setting? This is mainly due to the expanded roles of nursing.

Todays nursing is a role that requires physical assessments, critical thinking, and collaborative treatment plans, just to name a few duties. Therefore, nurses must understand the laws that affect their practice, as well as their legal responsibilities in their professional roles.

There are multiple governing bodies that determine the laws by which nurses must abide. This includes employer policies, national regulatory boards (like the National Council of State Regulatory Boards of Nursing), as well as state and federal laws. Although understanding the legal concepts and terminology in nursing may sound like a daunting endeavor, the principles are simple when we break them down.

Legal Concepts and Terms

Please note, in order to simplify the concepts in this lesson, all the terminology will be defined as it pertains to the practice of nursing.


Law is defined as a code which regulates nurses' conduct (their actions). There are three main components. Laws:

  1. impose a duty to conform to a specific standard,
  2. apply to all nurses,
  3. can be enforced.

One of the most notable laws related to nursing is known as 'mandated reporting'. This law requires all nurses to immediately report any suspected or known neglect, abuse, or exploitation of any patient (adult or minor) encountered in the professional setting.


Jurisprudence is the science or philosophy of the law, which can include ethical and moral discussions, societal and political views, and the historical context of law.

Discussions might include the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974. Further discussions might include the idea known as Battered Child Syndrome, a grouping of the most common symptoms seen in abuse cases, and the explosion of protective organizations established to assist victims.

Jurisprudence can be a rather involved practice. It is a major component to law, as it helps to explain how and why laws were created.


Liability is an obligation that can be enforced by law. In the nursing profession, it can be further broken down into subcategories:

  • administrative liability - violation of regulation, such as failing to renew your license
  • civil liability - imposing penalties in the form of payment or compensation to the patient who was harmed
  • criminal liability - imposing fines or imprisonment for crimes committed


Incompetence is lacking the ability, knowledge, or qualification to complete a required task. For example, let's say a nurse that has no education, experience, or training in oncology (treatment of cancer), yet administers chemotherapy for the first time without instruction or supervision.

This situation can result in much more serious consequences for the patient, but what we are focusing on in this example is the act itself; the nurse is performing a duty in which they lack the education, experience, or training to complete; the act is incompetent.


Negligence is the omission or commission of an act which causes injury to a patient. The standard is based on what a reasonably prudent person would do in the same situation. There are four elements to negligence:

  1. there must be a known duty (responsibility)
  2. the nurse must fail to meet this duty
  3. there had to be foreseeable harm
  4. an injury must have occurred

Let's say a nurse finds a patient to be complaining of shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness. The patient's vital signs and EKG are abnormal. The nurse's duty is to report the situation, but decides to continue with his other duties rather than take the time to track down the physician to report the abnormal findings and patient distress. The patient suffers a heart attack.

This is an example of negligence. The nurse omitted an act that resulted in injury and failed to communicate the patient's condition, which any reasonable person could foresee would lead to harm.

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