Don’t take chances by being unprotected
Don’t take chances by being unprotected
Employer’s liability insurance may not be enough
When it comes to being sued, occupational health nurses typically are not targeted for litigation at the same rate as their peers in obstetrics, surgery, and anesthesia, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t carry professional liability, or malpractice, insurance.
"Occupational nurses are liable for any of their actions, to include not responding appropriately," says Linda Easterly, RN, BSN, MS, COHN-S, president of the Georgia Nurses Association in Atlanta. Whether working full-time for an employer or as a consultant in private practice, malpractice insurance is something every nurse needs, just in case, she adds.
Nurses at greater risk
Historically, nurses were rarely named in malpractice lawsuits, with plaintiffs instead targeting physicians and hospitals. But that’s changed in recent years.
"Nurses are exposed now more than they ever were," according to Scott Doody, marketing supervisor for Nursing Services Organization of Hatboro, PA. Nursing Services Organization is a provider of liability insurance and risk management information for nurses, nurse practitioners, and clinical nurse specialists.
Today’s malpractice and wrongful death and injury lawsuits "name everyone who has any connection at all" to the events leading to the suits, and more and more, that includes nurses.
Nurses’ risk for being sued "is changing every day," Easterly says. "As nurses are seen as part of the decision-making process, they are also sued, and so they need to have protection."
While occupational health nurses might be somewhat less likely to be sued than nurses in other fields, they are by no means insulated. A nurse whose job description outlines his or her job duties as conducting safety evaluations but who agrees to treat some minor injuries while on the site could technically be practicing outside his or her job description, leaving the door open for potential legal action if something goes wrong.
Doody says cost not really is a barrier when nurses consider buying professional liability insurance. A typical policy for a nurse that provides up to about $1 million per claim costs only about $90 a year, he says.
"One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced recently is nurses telling us that they have been told that they don’t need to carry their own personal coverage because if an [opposing] attorney finds out they have a policy, they’ll be targeted by a lawsuit," says Doody. But that "deep pocket" fear has not proved to be true, he says.
"Attorneys aren’t going to know who has coverage unless you tell them," Doody explains. "That information isn’t available unless you volunteer it."
Concerns that employers will divulge to lawyers that a nurse has personal coverage, thereby sharing the burden in the event of an award to a plaintiff, likewise should not keep nurses from buying coverage, Doody says, because nurses aren’t obliged to tell their employers about personal coverage. The only time an employer would have reason to know about a policy is if the nurse asks his or her employer to cover the cost of the insurance.
Employer policies may be inadequate
If your employer provides malpractice coverage as part of your job it does not mean that a personal policy still isn’t a good idea.
"All nurses need to have their own insurance, due to the fact that a company can always state that what they were doing was not in their job description, and therefore would not be covered," says Easterly.
Doody says even if a nurse’s employer says he or she is covered, the nurse should find out exactly to what extent he or she is protected.
"A hospital’s policy has limits, and it’s important to know what those limits are," he says. "Say a hospital’s policy has a $1 million limit per occurrence, and a patient’s family sues everybody, that policy might run out and leave people holding the bag."
A hospital’s attorney has the hospital’s best interests at heart when defending a lawsuit, and Doody says that might mean that the nurse’s best interests fall somewhere below those of the institution.
"Although most businesses will have some type of coverage for the nurse, it can be very limiting; and if the settlement is higher [than the coverage], the nurse may still be liable for the remaining funds," says Easterly. "This can be quite a shock for a nurse."
Termination of coverage is an issue nurses should consider as well. Even if an employer — a hospital, for example — provides coverage for nurses employed there, if the hospital terminates that policy in favor of another, the coverage for any events that occurred during the coverage period of the first policy will end, and those events won’t be covered by the new policy, Doody explains.
"So if you’re sued this year over something that happened last year, and your employer isn’t covered by the same policy, then there’s no coverage," he says.
A personal policy carries on as long as the nurse continues it, goes with him or her even if there is a job change and, in many cases, covers events that occur during the policy period even after the policy is terminated.
Another reason for occupational health nurses who are employed outside the health care setting to maintain their own liability coverage is that the insurance provided by a manufacturer, for example, is not necessarily the best coverage for a health care provider.
Self-employed? Cover your assets
Nurses who are self-employed should be particularly careful to make sure they carry personal liability insurance in an amount that will cover them in a worst-case scenario. Depending on the carrier, Doody says, self-employed nurses might be charged at the same rate as employed nurses, or at a slightly higher rate.
"If you’re employed, the thinking is you have more people’s eyes on you, a second set of hands, that help catch mistakes before they happen," he explains. "When you’re self employed, mistakes can happen since there’s no second pair of eyes there."
Easterly encourages nurses to make friends in the legal world.
"I would recommend that the nurse know one or two good labor/medical attorneys and ask for their suggestions on limits and types of malpractice insurances," she says. "All nurses need liability insurance, but particularly if they are working independent of any other coverage."
Legal judgments against nurses can mean the loss of personal assets, including wages, future inheritances, retirement distributions, and property. Even property owned jointly with another person, such as a spouse or business partner, may be at risk.
Easterly says nurses who engage in safety consulting could be particularly at risk, should something go wrong at a site for which they consult and an accident be blamed on poor safety advice.
She adds that not allowing themselves to be persuaded to practice outside their job descriptions or practice guidelines is extra "insurance" occupational health nurses always need to keep an eye on.
Occupational nurses have the ethical and legal responsibility to both the employee [patient/client] and the business," she says. "They need to make sure that they are always working within the practice act of the state that they are working in, and need to take steps to make sure they stay within their practice guidelines."
[For more information, contact:
- Scott Doody, Marketing Supervisor, Nursing Services Organization, Hatboro, PA. Phone: (800) 247-1500.
- Linda Easterly, RN, BSN, MS, COHN-S, President, Georgia Nurses Association. Phone: (404) 325-5536. E-mail: [email protected].]
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