Training To Become A Nurse Practitioner? Can You Be Sued For Malpractice?

If you're in the process of seeking your master's or doctorate degree to become a licensed nurse practitioner, you may be starting on the clinical education portion of your training -- practicing the skills you've learned in your advanced courses on real-life patients. While this clinical training is always performed under the supervision of a nurse practitioner or physician, accidents can and do sometimes happen. Can you be sued for malpractice before you're even licensed as a nurse practitioner? Read on to learn more about your potential malpractice liability during your current training, as well as when you should consider investing in malpractice insurance to protect yourself from economic harm if you're ever sued by a patient. 

Can you be sued for malpractice before you're licensed as a nurse practitioner?

Most states have broadly defined medical malpractice laws that allow injured patients to sue anyone (and everyone) who meets three criteria

  1. the person being sued has established a relationship of care with a patient (whether their family doctor of decades or a doctor assigned to treat them in the hospital or emergency room); 
  2. the person being sued has breached this duty of care through negligence, recklessness, or willful disregard (like performing a medical procedure while under the influence of illegal drugs or refusing to order necessary tests and missing a dangerous diagnosis); and 
  3. this negligence led to an actual injury.

Although doctors often tend to be associated with malpractice lawsuits, nurses and other medical professionals who provide direct patient care can also be named as defendants if the above three criteria are met. This means that whether you're a practicing nurse working your way through graduate school or your patient exposure is limited to that received through your school's clinical program, you may be at risk of a malpractice lawsuit if a patient under your care later suffers a medical complication. Your risk of a lawsuit increases once you become a licensed nurse practitioner and are "flying solo" without the benefit of a direct supervisor to oversee your procedures and approve treatment plans. 

When should you purchase malpractice insurance?

Unfortunately, even if a lawsuit filed against you is dismissed by the judge, you'll still have incurred legal expenses in defending yourself -- and may even have suffered in the employment realm if publicity surrounding the lawsuit has reduced the number of patients making appointments with you. If you're sued for malpractice while still in school, you might find that you have trouble landing a job after graduation with a malpractice allegation on your record (even an unproven one). 

These potential negative consequences of a lawsuit are made much worse if you happen to lose your case. While you'll have the right to appeal a judge or jury verdict after it has been handed down, your appeal will cost additional money and may not be successful. You'll then be required to begin paying the monetary judgment assessed against you, and may have your wages garnished or bank accounts frozen.  

For these reasons, it's important to purchase malpractice insurance as soon as you move into a role that has you taking on patient contact. This insurance can help cover your legal fees, costs, and any judgment awarded if you're sued for malpractice. Before purchasing a policy, you'll want to get multiple quotes and carefully review the terms of the policy you choose to ensure you're not limiting your options later. For example, some malpractice insurance policies have a lifetime payout cap -- so if you're sued (and lose) for an amount in excess of this cap, you may be dropped from your policy and become uninsurable. For states without a cap on punitive damage awards in malpractice cases, choosing a policy with a very high (or nonexistent) payout cap is wise. For more information about navigating this process, contact a medical malpractice lawyer such as Robert Reardon.