Wisconsin obstetrics nurse Julie Thao entered into a plea agreement in December that resulted in the dropping of a felony charge against her. Thao had been charged with criminal neglect following a medication error.
While caring for a teenage girl in labor, Thao had intended to administer intravenous (I.V.) penicillin, which had been ordered for a possible strep infection. Instead, she mistakenly injected an epidural anesthetic into the I.V. line. The patient died. Local prosecutors made the unusual decision to charge her with one count of neglect of a patient causing great bodily harm, a class H felony in Wisconsin. (See Editor's Note, "Should Human Error Be a Crime?" in the February issue of Nursing2007.)
In a courtroom full of nurses who came to offer support, Thao entered a "no contest" plea to two misdemeanor counts of illegally administering prescription drugs. In exchange, the felony charge, which could have resulted in jail time, was dropped. During the hearing, Thao tearfully apologized to the patient's mother for the fatal error.
Taking into account Thao's positive performance evaluations for the past 13 years, the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing suspended her license for a relatively short period, 9 months, retroactive to July 2006 when the error occurred. The state court placed Thao on probation for 3 years. During that time, she can't work in critical care settings or birthing units.
One condition of the plea agreement is that Thao may not work more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period or more than 60 hours per week for 2 years. On the day before making the error, she'd worked two consecutive 8-hour shifts, and her fatigue was considered to be a factor in the error. Among other conditions of the agreement, Thao must take classes on preventing medication and health care errors and make three presentations to nurses or nursing students on the topic.