Nursing-Related Crimes: Felonies and Misdemeanors

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Nurses can be prosecuted for intentional crimes committed on the job, such as murder and theft. Nurses can also be prosecuted for negligent behavior. This lesson explains both felonies and misdemeanors nurses can commit.

Nursing-Related Felonies

Nurse Charles Cullen admitted to killing up to 40 patients throughout his career, though evidence shows he may have killed or attempted to kill many more. He admitted to purposefully injecting lethal drugs into various patients in order to cause their deaths. Some were elderly and critically ill, but others were young and soon to be discharged. He's currently serving 18 consecutive life sentences in prison due to multiple murder convictions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Cullen is just one of a number of nurses charged with murdering patients. Similar cases have taken place in Texas, Florida, Ohio, California, and throughout Europe. Murder is, of course, a felony crime, which is the most serious type of crime. Felonies include crimes involving serious bodily harm or violence, though not all felonies are violent. Felonies are punishable by a year or more in prison, with some even eligible for the death penalty in those states that allow capital punishment.

Nurses who commit felonies are typically no different than other felons except that they target patients. Their reasons for committing crimes are complicated and varying. However, the majority of the nursing cases take place in hospitals and nursing homes, where victims are accessible and defenseless. Experts believe these criminals target patients because they're vulnerable.

This type of patient vulnerability also leads to felonies other than murder. Other nursing-related felonies include aggravated assault and sexual assault. For example, one Kansas nurse was charged with sexually assaulting four women while the patients were in surgical recovery. Note, though, that intentional felonies committed against patients continue to be rare occurrences.

Stealing and Misuse

You might wonder how Cullen and other nurses were able to murder patients. Some used suffocation, but many used hospital drugs. Stealing drugs and other property is a fairly common nursing-related crime. Stealing can be a misdemeanor offense depending on the jurisdiction and the value or quantity of the item stolen. For example, Texas has a statute making it a misdemeanor crime to alter or forge a prescription, including changing the quantity of a drug. Misdemeanors are considered to be less serious offenses than felonies. They're punishable by up to one year in jail. Most misdemeanors are property crimes, meaning they do not involve the presence of a victim.

Nurses steal drugs for a variety of reasons. Some have addiction problems, such as an addiction to prescription pain medication. Others sell the drugs for a profit. In the case of one Oklahoma nurse, the defendant seemed to be engaged in both. A small percentage of nurses, like Cullen, use stolen drugs to harm others.

Access to drugs, syringes, and other medical equipment can be troublesome for healthcare providers. Hospitals, pharmacies, and care facilities have increased security in recent years to prevent the theft and misuse of drugs and other medical equipment.

Medical Negligence

However, nurses don't have to intentionally commit a crime in order to end up in criminal trouble. Prosecutions for medical negligence are increasingly common. Criminal medical negligence requires that the nurse:

  • Committed a 'gross or flagrant deviation from the standard of care', or what would have been expected from a similarly skilled nurse performing in a similar situation
  • Knew or should have known of a 'substantial and unjustifiable risk' to the patient, but the nurse acted (or failed to act) anyway

Negligent nursing errors can result in criminal charges for assault, neglect, or negligent homicide. In some jurisdictions, negligent homicide is known as involuntary manslaughter. These crimes are usually lower level felonies or higher level misdemeanors, depending on the jurisdiction.

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