Legal Liability in Nursing: Areas of Liability

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Nurses can be held legally liable for a variety of reasons. This lesson explains legal liability, negligence and malpractice. It also explores specific areas of nursing liability. Updated: 12/25/2021

Legal Liability

You likely chose the nursing profession because you enjoy helping others. Words like ''liability,'' ''negligence,'' and ''malpractice'' probably never entered your mind. However, nurses are increasingly finding that legal issues are an everyday part of nursing practice.

Studies show that more nurses are being sued for on-the-job behaviors and actions than ever before. Recent issues like nursing shortages and hospital cost-cutting initiatives have placed extra burdens on nurses, increasing their workloads and the margin for error.

Nurses can be found legally liable, or responsible for mistakes made, due a variety of different reasons. Perhaps they did not do something they were supposed to do, or they did something they should not have done.


In order to be found legally liable, it's generally necessary to show that the nurse acted negligently, or acted in the way they shouldn't have, which can occur even when a nurse has good intentions. A nurse can be found to be negligent if these three standards are present:

  1. The nurse owed a ''duty of care'' to the patient, or was obligated to care for the patient
  2. The nurse ''breached'' that duty of care, or failed to properly care for the patient
  3. The breach resulted in ''measurable damage'', which is simply injury or harm to the patient

When determining whether or not a nurse owed a duty of care, and whether or not that duty was breached, the court will consider the standard of care appropriate for a nurse with similar education, training, and experience when encountering the same or a similar situation. A nurse in her first weeks of work will not be held to the same standard as one with years of experience. Also, a nurse will not be held to the same standard of care as a surgeon who worked on the same patient.


When a nurse is found to have acted negligently, that nurse has committed malpractice. Malpractice simply means the nurse failed to uphold his or her legal and professional responsibilities. All nurses must be licensed, and through that process nurses pledge to maintain certain standards.

The standards include knowing and following all laws and ethical rules applicable to their practice, including the state's nurse practice act (NPA). Each state has an NPA enacted in order to protect public health and ensure the safe practice of nursing. When a nurse is not practicing within the NPA's laws, that nurse is committing malpractice.

Areas of Liability

Let's take a look at some specific areas that are ripe for legal liability in nursing. There are situations in which nurses must be particularly careful in order to avoid negligent behavior. A few of these include:

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