Plaintiff's attorney: Policy makes you a target

Lack of insurance could make you invisible

While he admits he's telling Occupational Health Management readers a bit of a trade secret, a plaintiff's malpractice attorney says a nurse's professional liability insurance policy makes it far more likely to be named in a lawsuit.

Greig Coates, MD, JD, an attorney with Mithoff and Jacks in Austin, TX, previously had experience on the clinical side of health care and now is a malpractice attorney. He confirms that a nurse's professional liability insurance policy sometimes can invite trouble.

"This is kind of inside baseball, but very candidly, I typically will not name nurses in the lawsuit if I suspect that they do not have separate coverage," he says. "The only time we've named nurses is when we knew they had separate coverage, or when the case potential made it worthwhile to name them just to see if they had coverage."

Coates points out it is uncommon for nurses to be named individually in malpractice lawsuits because they typically do not have the deep pockets of their employer, or the financial resources and liability coverage of a physician.

"And besides, juries are much more inclined to find against the big nameless corporation instead of Nurse Smith," he says. "There is this assumption the nurse had good intentions, was trying to do the right thing, and there's no reason to sue him or her. Since there's usually no money there to recover anyway, an attorney usually doesn't want to work against those assumptions."

Coates notes that, even without your own liability coverage, nurses can not expect to be spared all the stress and strife of a malpractice case in which they were somehow involved. Even if you are not named individually in the lawsuit and therefore are not threatened financially, you still may have to testify.

As for the decision on whether occupational health nurses should purchase their own professional liability coverage, Coates has these words of advice:

· The overall risk of malpractice is lower in occupational health than in many specialties in which a nurse could practice, such as obstetrics or surgery.

That alone should influence your decision before considering the many other factors, he says.

· Occupational health nurses should be very careful in determining whether they are employees with coverage provided by the employer or independent contractors who are responsible for getting their own coverage. Many nurses are confused by the issue and erroneously assume that they are employees when they actually are independent contractors, he warns.