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Understanding Torts in Nursing: Examples of Intentional and Unintentional Harm

Tort law is a branch of civil law that deals with situations in which a person has suffered harm or injury due to the wrongful actions of another. In nursing, tort law is particularly relevant because nurses have a duty of care to their patients and can be held liable if they breach that duty.

It's important to distinguish between intentional torts and unintentional torts in nursing, as they involve different types of legal claims and liability.


Intentional Torts in Nursing

Intentional torts occur when a nurse intentionally causes harm to a patient. Although such actions are rare and go against the core principles of nursing, they can have severe legal consequences. Some examples of intentional torts in nursing include:


Battery occurs when a nurse intentionally touches a patient without their consent or performs a procedure that goes beyond the scope of the patient's consent. Examples of nursing battery may include:

  • Performing a procedure on a patient without obtaining informed consent

  • Administering medication or treatment against a patient's wishes

  • Touching a patient in a way that is uncomfortable or invasive without their consent


Assault occurs when a nurse intentionally causes fear or apprehension in a patient that they will be physically harmed. Examples of nursing assault may include:

  • Threatening a patient with physical harm

  • Preparing to administer an injection or other procedure without the patient's consent or against their will

  • Displaying aggressive or intimidating behavior towards a patient

False Imprisonment

False imprisonment occurs when a patient is confined or restrained against their will. Examples of nursing false imprisonment may include:

  • Restraining a patient without proper justification

  • Refusing to allow a patient to leave a healthcare facility or room

  • Using physical force to prevent a patient from leaving

Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy refers to the violation of a patient's right to privacy and confidentiality. Nurses must respect patient privacy by maintaining confidentiality and ensuring that sensitive information is not disclosed without proper authorization.


Defamation occurs when a nurse makes false statements about a patient or discloses private information about a patient to others. Examples of nursing defamation may include:

  • Making false statements about a patient's condition or treatment

  • Sharing a patient's medical information with others without proper authorization

  • Posting information about a patient on social media without their consent

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when a nurse intentionally causes severe emotional distress to a patient. Examples of nursing intentional infliction of emotional distress may include:

  • Making derogatory comments or jokes about a patient's condition or personal characteristics

  • Using threatening or intimidating language or behavior toward a patient

  • Ignoring a patient's emotional needs or dismissing their concerns

Unintentional Torts in Nursing

Unintentional torts, also known as negligence, arise from a nurse's failure to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm to a patient. While unintentional, these torts can have significant consequences. Here are some examples:


Negligence is the most common type of tort in nursing. It occurs when a nurse fails to provide a reasonable standard of care to a patient, resulting in harm or injury. Examples of nursing negligence may include:

  • Failure to properly monitor a patient's vital signs

  • Failure to follow physician orders or nursing protocols

  • Failure to properly administer medications

  • Failure to properly document a patient's condition or care

  • Failure to communicate with other healthcare providers about a patient's condition


Malpractice is a specific type of negligence where a healthcare professional, including nurses, fails to provide care that meets the accepted standards, resulting in harm to the patient. Examples include misdiagnosis, surgical errors, or improper wound care.

Similarities and Differences Between Intentional and Unintentional Torts

While intentional and unintentional torts differ in their underlying intent, they share similarities in terms of legal consequences. Both types of torts can result in legal claims, monetary compensation, damage to professional reputation, and even license suspension or revocation. However, intentional torts are characterized by the nurse's deliberate actions, while unintentional torts stem from negligence or lack of reasonable care.

Legal Implications for Nurses

Nurses involved in tort cases may face legal ramifications that impact their professional and personal lives. Depending on the severity of the harm caused, nurses may be held liable for damages, face disciplinary action by regulatory bodies, or be subject to professional malpractice lawsuits. It is crucial for nurses to understand the legal implications and practice within the boundaries of their professional scope.

Preventing Torts in Nursing Practice

Preventing torts in nursing practice requires a proactive approach that prioritizes patient safety and effective communication. Here are some key strategies for minimizing the risk of harm and potential legal consequences:

Importance of Documentation

Accurate and thorough documentation is vital in nursing practice. Nurses must document all aspects of patient care, including assessments, interventions, and patient responses. Clear and comprehensive documentation can serve as evidence in case of legal disputes.

Effective Communication

Open and effective communication is essential in preventing misunderstandings and potential harm to patients. Nurses should ensure that vital information is communicated clearly among the healthcare team, including physicians, other nurses, and allied healthcare professionals.

Proper Training and Education

Continuous training and education are crucial for nurses to stay updated with best practices and evidence-based guidelines. By enhancing their knowledge and skills, nurses can provide safer and higher-quality care, reducing the risk of unintended harm.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. What should nurses do if they suspect an intentional tort has occurred? If nurses suspect an intentional tort, they should report it to their supervisor or the appropriate authority within their healthcare organization. It is essential to follow the established reporting procedures and ensure patient safety.

  2. Can unintentional torts lead to criminal charges? While unintentional torts are civil wrongs, they can potentially lead to criminal charges if the harm caused to the patient is severe and involves gross negligence or recklessness.

  3. Are nurses personally liable for torts committed during their practice? Nurses can be held personally liable for torts committed during their practice, depending on the circumstances and the extent of their involvement. It is crucial for nurses to have professional liability insurance to protect themselves from potential legal and financial consequences.

  4. How can nurses improve their documentation practices? To improve documentation practices, nurses should prioritize accuracy, completeness, and timeliness. They should use standardized formats, avoid subjective language, and ensure their documentation reflects the entire scope of patient care.

  5. Where can I learn more about nursing ethics and legal responsibilities? There are various resources available for nurses to learn more about nursing ethics and legal responsibilities. They can refer to professional nursing organizations, legal journals, and continuing education courses specific to nursing ethics and law. Intentional torts are actions that are deliberately taken with the intention of causing harm or injury to another person. In the context of nursing, intentional torts can include battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In these cases, the nurse intentionally acts in a way that causes harm to the patient, and the patient may be able to sue the nurse for damages.

Torts in nursing encompass both intentional and unintentional harm caused to patients. Understanding the distinctions between these types of torts is vital for nurses to provide safe and ethical care. By maintaining a high standard of practice, promoting effective communication, and prioritizing patient safety, nurses can minimize the risk of torts and uphold their professional responsibilities.

NCLEX: National Council Licensure Examination, OIIQ: Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec, OIIAQ: Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers auxiliaires du Québec


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