LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ The state can't discipline doctors for making a single mistake that doesn't show gross incompetence or negligence, the state Supreme Court ruled on Friday.
The case involved a woman who died after surgery.
Three years ago, the state Department of Health and Human suspended the license of Dr. Steven Mahnke, a longtime family practice physician in Central City. A woman named only as R.C. in court documents had a miscarriage in 2003 and died following surgery Mahnke performed on her to remove the placenta.
Health and Human Services decided in 2005 that Mahnke's conduct was unprofessional, citing the method he decided to use to remove the placenta, and suspended his license. During the surgery in Central City, Mahnke perforated the uterus, according to court documents.
He tried to stabilize R.C., but she went into cardiac arrest. She was flown to a Lincoln hospital, where she died.
The state's discipline against Mahnke included a 90-day suspension of his medical license, followed by two years of probation. He also was barred from using the procedure he had performed on the woman, except in emergency situations.
A Lancaster County District Court later ruled the state was wrong to suspend his license, saying the state failed to present clear and convincing evidence that Mahnke's conduct was unprofessional under state law.
The state appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Instead of looking exclusively at the standard of care, the Supreme Court reviewed whether the state can discipline doctors based on a single act of "ordinary negligence."
The judges pointed to an amendment to state law approved by the Nebraska Legislature in 1994. The amendment says "gross negligence" or a "pattern of negligent conduct" warrants disciplinary action.
The only reason to add the amendment "would have been to clarify that the state may not base a disciplinary action on a single act of negligent conduct that fails to show a pattern," Judge William Connolly wrote in the opinion for the high court.
"Although a physician's single act of ordinary negligence can lead to tragic consequences, the law must not turn on the facts of a single case," he wrote in conclusion.
State Attorney General Jon Bruning's office did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press seeking comment.
On the Net:
Nebraska Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourt.ne.gov/opinions/2008/july/jul11/s06-918.pdf