The North Carolina Supreme Court recently overturned a precedent that limited a medical malpractice victim’s ability to hold nurses accountable for harmful, negligent actions. The case that led to the decision involved a young girl who developed severe cerebral palsy after anesthesia errors. Her family can now proceed with their case against the nurse anesthetist involved.
Girl Disabled After Anesthesia Mistakes
This landmark decision comes in the case of Connette v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority. Three-year-old Amaya Gullatte underwent surgery for a heart condition in 2010. Errors made with her anesthesia left the little girl without oxygen to her brain for between 12 and 13 minutes.
The family sued the hospital, the doctors involved in the procedure, and the nurse anesthetist responsible for supplying anesthesia for the procedure.
Judge Bars Nurse-Related Testimony
The judge involved in the original trial blocked testimony that implicated and questioned the nurse anesthetist. This decision was based on a precedent from a 90-year-old case, Byrd v. Marion General Hospital.
In that case from 1932, courts determined that nurses were not legally liable for negligence when working under the supervision of a physician. This precedent held in North Carolina for 90 years and protected nurses but limited the ability of victims to seek appropriate justice.
A Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to maintain precedence, but the Gullatte family and their lawyers took the lawsuit to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the precedent by a vote of 3-2.
In the majority statement, Justice Michael Morgan explained the Court’s stance. He stated that the medical profession has evolved over the last 90 years to recognize that nurses have much more independence in patient care and decision-making than in the past.
Nurses are now more highly specialized, including nurse anesthetists, and are able to make decisions more easily without physician oversight. The Court recognized this and found that it means nurses should be held accountable for negligent decisions that harm patients.
The decision is controversial with the two dissenting justices finding that it is a decision for legislators to make, not the Supreme Court. Nurses and nurse associations also oppose the change, citing a physician’s oversight as the reason nurses still should not be held liable.
Expanded Rights for Victims
While not everyone is happy with the decision, victims of medical negligence now have more opportunities to seek justice. The parents of children with lifelong disabilities from cerebral palsy and other conditions can hold accountable every medical professional responsible for the outcome.
Amaya Gullatte’s family now has a right to a new trial, in which they hope to get justice for their daughter. Her lifelong care will cost a lot, and they now have a greater ability to get the compensation she needs.