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What are the consequences when nurses break the law?

Updated March 23, 2017

Patients rely on nurses not just for medical treatment, but for their safety and general well-being. Nurses have big responsibilities. Both law and professional ethics outline the high standards nurses must maintain in performing their duties. When nurses don't live up to their responsibilities, there can be legal consequences. These vary based on the laws violated and the severity of a nurse's actions. In all cases, state boards of nursing take the lead in disciplining nurses.

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Nursing License

State boards of nursing take incidents of wrongdoing very seriously. When a patient, family member or another health care professional files a compliant against a nurse, state boards conduct investigations. If investigation shows that a nurse violated either law or ethics, a nursing board will take action against a nurse's license. This can involve imposing limitations such as requiring a nurse to work under the supervision of another nurse or not being allowed to handle controlled substances. Serious incidents are likely to lead to suspension or revocation of a nurse's license. If a nurse is known to have licenses in other states, nursing boards will alert the others about the incident and action.

Job Loss

Medical facilities and clinics have policies about what happens when nurses violate law and their professional responsibilities. Nurses can lose their jobs if a facility or nursing board investigation determines wrongdoing. They also terminate based on criminal convictions. In some cases, a medical facility may terminate a nurse who sustains a drug conviction, even if it's not work related. Many facilities feel that because nurses handle narcotics and other controlled substances, drug offences cannot be tolerated. Their human resources policies usually reflect this.


Most violations of nursing regulations don't come with criminal penalties. Still, there are actions a nurse can take that are criminal. Patient abuse, theft of controlled substances, kidnapping and purposeful overdosing of patients as "mercy killing" are all things nurses have done that result in criminal prosecution. Intentional sale and distribution of patient information and Medicare billing fraud can result in federal prosecution.

Civil Penalties

Patients and their families can hold nurses accountable through civil law. Nurses are liable for malpractice, abuse and neglect. Irrespective of criminal prosecution and its results, patients and their families can seek damages for harm or wrongful death caused by a nurse. In many states, the law allows plaintiffs to file suit against individual clinicians in addition to their medical facilities.

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About the Author

Eric Feigenbaum started his career in print journalism, becoming editor-in-chief of "The Daily" of the University of Washington during college and afterward working at two major newspapers. He later did many print and Web projects including re-brandings for major companies and catalog production.

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