Byrd Song for a Ninety-Year Medical Malpractice Decision

October 25, 2022

A recent decision from the North Carolina Supreme Court, Connette v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority revisits a nearly century-old holding. The panel majority opinion, drafted by Justice Morgan and joined by Justices Hudson and Earls overturned the long-standing Byrd v. Marion General Hospital. Byrd, and the cases that followed, established that nurses working under the supervision of a licensed physician do not owe patients a duty of care. Put simply, nurses working under a doctor were protected from medical malpractice claims.

The Connette case arose out of an incident in 2010 where 3-year-old Amaya Guallatte suffered cardiac arrest, permanent brain damage, developmental delay, and cerebral palsy following the administration of anesthesia by a nurse practitioner.

The Court found it “timely and appropriate” to overturn Byrd “[d]ue to the evolution of the medical profession’s recognition of the increased specialization and independence of nurses in the treatment of patients.” Since Byrd, the Court noted, nurses have grown in professional status within the medical community and nurses today enjoy far more independence in making decisions for the course of treatment or care for the patient.

The Court also looked to North Carolina’s statutes for guidance and support. North Carolina’s statutes, the Court explained, “expressly contemplate[] medical malpractice actions against registered nurses for professional services rendered.”

While the decision is a welcome relief for individuals who were injured while receiving medical care, the full impact of the decision will take time to uncover. Justice Barringer noted practical considerations in her dissenting opinion including the uncertainty of whether nurses will now require malpractice insurance. She also pointed to policy concerns such as whether the Court may now be required to “determine which nurses’ training and responsibilities are so advanced or specialized as to warrant liability and which nurses, if any, remain not liable.”

A certain outcome of the decision in Connette is the increase of options available to injured patients both in terms of possible evidence to support a claim and obtaining relief from medical professionals who were previously shielded from liability. The Connette case has been remanded back to the trial court for a new trial to allow new evidence that was barred under Byrd.

If you have questions about this blog post, please contact Brad Searson at (828)252-5555.

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