Nurse Found Not Guilty for Reporting Unsafe Care

Nurse faced a felony charge in a criminal trial.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) released a media alert on February 11, 2010 describing the outcome of the criminal trial dubbed the "Winkler County nurses" trial. Anne Mitchell, RN, faced a third-degree felony charge in Texas of "misuse of official information" for reporting a physician to the Texas Medical Board for providing what she believed was unsafe patient care. In less than hour, the jury returned a not guilty verdict for the defendant.

The ANA press release quoted Susy Sportsman, PhD, RN, president of the Texas Nurses Association, a constituent member association of the ANA saying, “We are very pleased about the not guilty verdict and that justice prevailed for Anne Mitchell. If anything was to be gained from the absurdity of this criminal trial, it is the reaffirmation that a nurse’s duty to advocate for the health and safety of patients supersedes all else.”

The verdict "is a resounding win on behalf of patient safety in the U.S. Nurses play a critical, duty-bound role in acting as patient safety watch guards in our nation's health care system. The message the jury sent is clear: the freedom for nurses to report a physician's unsafe medical practices is non-negotiable,” said ANA President Rebecca M. Patton, RN, MSN, CNOR. “However, ANA remains shocked and deeply disappointed that this sort of blatant retaliation was allowed to take place and reach the trial stage — a different outcome could have endangered patient safety across the U.S., having a potential "chilling effect" that would make nurses think twice before reporting shoddy medical practice. Nurse whistle blowers should never be fired and criminally charged for reporting questionable medical care.”

Mitchell had been fired from her job and faced a third-degree felony charge. I concur with ANA President Patton's statement that reporting unsafe care is a nurse's moral and legal obligation. It is then up to the entity to which the care was reported (eg, health department, state licensing body)--and not a criminal court--to determine if unsafe care had in fact been delivered. There should be a mechanism to address malicious or fraudulent reports, and appropriate consequences for this. However, a nurse who in good faith reports what he or she believes is unsafe care should never ever have to face a criminal charge.