In 2010, Amaya Gullate was three years old. Medical professionals at Carolinas Medical Center, now Atrium Health, recommended a procedure for his heart condition.
“They gave her anesthesia, which was the biggest danger she had,” said John Edwards, the attorney representing the family. “Her heart stopped as a result of the anesthesia. She ended up being without oxygen and without blood in her brain for about 12 or 13 minutes.
Gullate left with permanent brain damage, cerebral palsy and developmental delays.
Edwards sued the hospital, three doctors and the registered nurse anesthetist. The action against the nurse was blocked by Byrd v. Marion General Hospital, a decision protecting nurses working under the supervision of a physician. Twelve years later, the state Supreme Court issued a 41-page opinion that nurses can be held legally responsible.
“The short version is that each of us, including you and me, are legally responsible for what we do,” Edwards said. “What the North Carolina Supreme Court said on Friday is that we’re going to do the same thing for all health care providers, treat them all exactly the same.”
The ruling passed a 3-2 majority. Judge Tamara Barringer, a dissenting judge, said the court went too far in its opinion.
“By judicially altering this standard, the three-judge majority appears to create non-causal liability – allowing a nurse to be held liable for negligent collaboration in the treatment ultimately chosen by the physician. Such a policy choice should be made by the Legislature, not just three justices of this Court,” Justice Barringer wrote.
Ashley Hughes, a critical care nurse and legal nurse consultant, agrees that lawmakers should have been involved in changing the law of the land.
“None of the judges are in the field of health. So it’s very dangerous for me,” Hughes said. “Making decisions, especially on standards of care without going through the regular procedures of going through the General Assembly.”
Hughes says nurses want to provide adequate patient care and the move will further exacerbate the national nursing shortage.
“They are already understaffed. On top of that there is the issue of violence against nurses, nurses are attacked. There are the issues of paid nurses not being paid properly,” Hughes said. “Along with that, criminally, nurses are now held more criminally, rather than just civilly.”
For Gullate, the impacts of his proceedings affect his entire family, and Edwards plans to bring his case to trial. “She is now 15 and needs to be looked after 24/7,” Edwards said. “Her mum, her grandparents, they spend their whole lives looking after her. So it was going to be a long time for her, she needed help.
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