Patient Abuse Crimes in North Carolina

You have probably heard of medical or nursing home malpractice, where healthcare providers, hospitals, and care facilities are sued for their failure to provide adequate care. While these cases are often handled in civil courts, did you know that when misconduct is determined to be “abuse”, the care providers can face criminal charges. Patient abuse, like child abuse and elder or disabled abuse, is a felony, sometimes even a high-level felony at that. In North Carolina, there are several forms of patient abuse, but the law usually addresses the following:

  • The extent to bodily harm the patient endured.
  • Whether the cause of harm was the provider’s actions or inaction.
  • Whether the provider acted with culpable negligence, or with intent to cause harm.
  • Whether the actions reflect a “pattern of conduct”.

If you are facing charges for patient abuse, you absolutely need an experienced defense lawyer to represent you in court. The consequences for a conviction are enormous, including a complete loss of your career, loss of rights, jail, and fines.

person wheeled into ambulance after suffering a catastrophic injury, which may result in wrongful death

Who can be Charged with Patient Abuse?

While patient abuse is largely a crime that targets healthcare providers, any person can be guilty of it under North Carolina statute. What makes the crime patient abuse is not who commits it, but whether the victim was a patient of a healthcare facility or resident of a residential care facility, defined as follows:

  • Healthcare Facility: hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, intermediate care facilities, psychiatric facilities, rehabilitation facilities, kidney disease treatment centers, home health agencies, ambulatory surgical facilities, or any other health care related facilities whether publicly or privately owned.
  • Residential Care Facility: adult care homes and any other residential care facility whether publicly or privately owned.

So, while the “person” guilty of this crime will often be a healthcare provider at the facility, it could include any individual, association, corporation, or partnership.

Types of Patient Abuse Crimes in North Carolina

While patient abuse in North Carolina mostly falls under a single statute,  it can be split up into four variations as follows:

Intentional Conduct Causing Death

The most serious form of patient abuse is when a person’s physical abuse of a patient are the “proximate cause” of that patient’s death. Proximate cause can be a very complicated aspect to determine, but it is what is legally recognized as the primary cause of death, even if it is not the first event that led to death, nor the last.

For example, a patient may come into the emergency room and need to be hooked up to various monitors and fluids. If a person intentionally unhooks some of the monitors or pulls out the IV, which leads to the patient seizing, collapsing off the bed, and dying, the unhooking could be a proximate cause. Essentially, while the act is not why the patient is in the hospital, and not the direct action that killed the patient, the patient would not likely survived had their care not been intentionally tampered with. It is also important to note here that the “intent” is not required to be an intent to kill, but only to abuse.

A conviction of this crime is punished as a Class C felony. However, if the conduct falls under another greater crime, such as murder, it may instead be convicted under those laws.

Culpable Negligence Causing Death

The second most serious form of patient abuse is when a person physically abuses a patient in a culpably negligent manner, which proximately causes the patient’s death.

Culpable negligence is another complex state of mind, but generally refers to willful behavior that shows a reckless disregard for the safety or life of others. A conviction of this crime is punished as a Class E felonyassuming the defendant is not facing conviction under a law with greater punishment. 

Culpable Negligence Causing Serious Bodily Injury

When a person’s abuse of a patient is in a culpably negligent manner and causes them “serious bodily injury”, they are guilty of this crime.

Serious bodily injury includes:

  • permanent disfigurement
  • coma
  • permanent severe pain
  • impairment of the function of a bodily member or organ
  • prolonged hospitalization
  • substantial risk of death

A conviction of this crime is punished as a Class F felony.

Pattern of Culpable Negligence Causing Bodily Injury

This is the least serious form of patient abuse crime, but still a felony. A person is guilty of this crime when they show a pattern of conduct of culpably negligent abuse causing bodily injury to a patient or care resident.

The statute does not define what a pattern is here, though the language can be drawn from stalking cases where it involves enough repetition to appear as more than an accident or coincidence. “Bodily injury” is also not defined in this statute, but it can be understood as physical injuries that are less serious than those previously mentioned.

A conviction of this crime is punished as a class H felony.

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