I'm so glad I read this thread! Many of you have come up with excellent verbal replies to defuse or counter the situation. The kind of stuff I wish I'd been smart enough to think of myself.
I would just add that it is my understanding that not only does someone have to prove that you deviated from the standard of care, but they have to prove that you actually caused harm - not a potential to harm. This gets rid of alot of garbage lawsuits.
I'm pretty neurotic, and I still tend to get pretty worked up about the risk of being sued, even when I've done my best, and no threats have been made. Working in understaffed, dysfunctional situations means that even my best may not be enough to truly meet the standard of care. To calm myself down, I try to think about the situation in the following terms- stuff I've garnered from my reading.
First, I've read that even when harm is done, many lawyers will not take a case unless it is a big money case. They feel it's not worth their time. Second, even though a lawyer may take a case on contingency, that only applies to their fees, not any costs associated with discovery, subpoenas, etc. Very few people have the financial means to front the money for the costs associated with a case, especially as it may take years to wend its way through the courts. Third, people are going to go where the money is - which means they are going to target the hospital first, the doctor second, and you third, assuming that you have not grossly neglected or abused a pt.
I carry my own malpractice insurance, because hospital-supplied malpractice insurance will do nothing for you if the hospital argues that the blame falls on you because you failed to follow their protocols - even if it was impossible to do so because of lack of staff, equipment, etc. Never assume that the hospital's lawyers will protect you - they are there to protect the hospital, and the easiest way to do that is to pick on someone like you.
I chart the stuff that I think actually could apply to failing to meet the standard of care. For example, when there have been repeated problems getting stat labs drawn in a timely manner, I chart when I called phlebotomy. Charting to protect myself sometimes wins me little talks from my manager, but I'm not charting for him or her - I'm charting to convey information accurately to other members of the health care team, and for the jury that might be reading these charts someday. If confronted, I don't say this - I just play dumb.
These kind of threats are very upsetting, and will really keep you up at night. It's tough when you're new, and you're nervous about doing an adequate job anyway. Nobody prepares you for this, or talks about this in nursing school. Nor do you get the impression from TV that unfounded threats happen. I think it's something that none of us ever expected, and we feel truly hurt, as we have usually been giving 110% in unimaginable situations, going without meals and bathroom breaks to try to keep our patients safe. Even when we know that the situation is beyond our control, we go home at night blaming ourselves, thinking that maybe we could have somehow managed to give 120%. It's even worse when you're new. I think everybody feels like a bad nurse for the first year or so. We need to realize that the first year of nursing is kind of like being an intern after medical school. Try to remember that most of the anger that fuels these remarks comes from people's experiences with the health care system overall, not something you did. It also reflects what I think of as the "Jerry-Springer-ization" of social norms. These situations will happen to even the best professionals, given the cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid, and other financial pressures affecting hospitals. All you can do in an imperfect world is to do the best you can do and "leave the rest in God's hands", to put it in religious terms. Meaning, don't beat yourself up for situations beyond your control.
My advice is intended to help you feel less anxious - not to take the place of other advice offered on this thread. Many of the comments, such as talking with your manager and risk management, are excellent, and are also part of what I do in this kind of situation.