RaDonda Vaught sentenced to 3 years probation for fatal medication error

A former Tennessee nurse convicted in the 2017 death of a patient due to a fatal drug error will serve no jail time.

Former Vanderbilt University Medical Center nurse RaDonda Vaught was sentenced to three years of supervised probation in a Friday morning sentencing highly anticipated by healthcare professionals concerned about the precedent of criminalizing medical mistakes.

A jury had found Vaught guilty on two charges of criminally negligent homicide and abuse of an impaired adult on March 25.

Vaught admitted to mistakenly administering an incorrect medication in 2017 that contributed to the death of 75-year-old patient Charlene Murphey. Vaught was fired from the medical center about one month following Murphey’s death and faced up to eight years in prison.

"Saying I'm sorry doesn’t seem like enough but you deserve to hear that and know that I am very sorry for what happened," Vaught reportedly told Murphey’s family during the Friday morning sentencing.

Alongside likely avoiding incarceration, Davidson County criminal court Judge Jennifer Smith also issued Vaught a judicial diversion, a program in which first-time offenders can have their records expunged after completing their probation.

“Knowing my mom the way my mom was and stuff, she wouldn’t want to see her serve no jail time. That’s just Mom. Mom was a very forgiving person,” Michael Murphey, Charlene Murphey’s son, reportedly told the court. However, other relatives testified that her husband did want Vaught to serve time in prison.

Local media reported that the sentence was met with applause in the court’s overflow room and hundreds who were waiting outside of the courthouse, many of whom were healthcare professionals.

Vaught’s criminal conviction had received near-universal blowback from the healthcare industry, which had raised concerns about the “dangerous precedent” prosecuting nurses for unintentional medical errors could have on future recruiting.  

In a joint statement, the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the Tennessee Nurses Association said “we are grateful to the judge for demonstrating leniency in the sentencing of Nurse Vaught. Unfortunately, medical errors can and do happen, even among skilled, well-meaning and vigilant nurses and healthcare professionals.

“Leaders, regulators and administrators have a responsibility to nurses and patients to put in place and sustain organizational structures that support a just culture, which includes recognizing that mistakes happen and systems fail. Structures should include full and confidential peer review processes to examine errors, deploy system improvements and establish corrective action plans. The criminalization of medical errors will not preserve safe patient care environments,” the organizations wrote.

The ANA and the Tennessee Nurses Association had written and delivered a letter to the judge (PDF) that was submitted into evidence, which outlined the “demanding work environment” Vaught and other nurses face and arguing that a harsh sentence could scare professionals away from responsible reporting of medical errors.

The group’s response to the lenient sentence was echoed by American Hospital Association Chief Nursing Officer Robyn Begley.

“When errors happen hospitals and health systems need open lines of communication to identify and understand the series of events so they can update patient safety systems to further prevent errors,” she said in a statement. “Criminal prosecutions will discourage health caregivers from coming forward with their mistakes and will complicate efforts to retain and recruit more people into nursing and other health care professions that are already understaffed.”

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement and its Lucian Leape Institute said in a statement that although they are "relieved" that Vaught avoided prison, "we remain disappointed and deeply concerned about the criminalization of error in medicine, which offers no remedy for improving patient safety. In fact, Ms. Vaught’s arrest and conviction makes patients less safe."

In the days following Vaught’s conviction, nursing groups such as the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology and other industry stakeholders such as nurse staffing platform IntelyCare had also released statements outlining the detrimental impact of the criminal charges and a potentially harsh sentence.