Supreme Court to hear case of fired mill guard who reported Gov. Baldacci, visitors for safety violations

Posted Nov. 18, 2013, at 7:20 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 19, 2013, at 6:36 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider Tuesday whether a security guard was fired illegally after he complained that then-Gov. John Baldacci violated safety rules during a visit to a Baileyville mill.

Richard Hickson, 57, of Eastport was working for Vescom Security of Hampden as a security guard in July 8, 2006, at the Woodland Pulp and Paper Mill when then-Gov. Baldacci and an entourage went on a tour of the facility, according to briefs filed in the case. Domtar owned the mill. About two weeks later, Hickson contacted Baldacci’s administration through a “contact me” link on the governor’s website.

Hickson claimed the Domtar official with Baldacci bypassed his security gate, that Hickson was not given a list of members of the governor’s group or its tour route, as was required by federal law and company policy, and at least one member of the group was wearing open-toed shoes, which violated safety rules. The email was not sent on to Baldacci but was forwarded to Domtar, according to court documents. Domtar sent it to Vescom. The firm fired Hickson the same day he sent the email.

A Washington County jury found in March 2013 that Vescom had violated the Maine Whistleblower’s Protection Act and awarded Hickson $35,000 in compensatory damages and $175,000 in punitive damages. Superior Court Justice Robert Murray the next month entered a judgment for Hickson in the amount of $182,747.09 plus interest, costs and attorneys’ fees, his attorney David Webbert of Augusta, said Monday in an email.

Vescom appealed the verdict, arguing that Hickson blew the whistle on Domtar not his actual employer. In his brief, Vescom’s attorney A.J. Greif of Bangor said that Hickson, as the shift supervisor on duty at the main gate, was responsible for enforcing Domtar’s safety rules the day of Baldacci’s visit. Hickson’s report of “his own failure to provide safety gear to the governor’s tour group is not protected conduct” under the law.

Since December 2008, Hickson has worked as a security guard at Calais Regional Hospital, according to Webbert.

In a separate case, justices will consider whether a two-year suspension of a registered nurse’s license to practice due to the death of a patient outside a Washington County hospital in January 2008 was too severe a reprimand considering the circumstances of the case.

John J. Zablotny, 47, of Steuben was on duty the night a 61-year-old man checked himself out of Down East Medical Center in Machias against medical advice and walked out of the hospital the night of Jan. 1, 2008, into a snowstorm. The body of Reid Emery of Eastport was found the next day about 18 feet from the hospital’s side wall, near the neighboring veterans home, according to a previously published report. He died of hypothermia and opiate toxicity, according to an autopsy.

In June 2012, the Maine State Board of Nursing revoked Zlabotny’s license to practice for two years, fined him $1,500 and ordered him to pay the cost of the hearing. He appealed the decision in Machias District Court. Judge John V. Romei upheld the board’s decision early this year.

“The board is looking at this regrettable and sad incident through 20-20 hindsight and not through the lens of what was happening at the time and it is clear that Nurse Zablotny is being made a scapegoat for the multitude of mistakes committed by others,” wrote Zablotny’s attorney, Joseph Baldacci of Bangor, in his brief to the justices.

Zablotny is asking, among other things, that the court reverse the board’s decision and define what discretion the Board of Nursing has in imposing such sanctions in the future.

While his appeal has been pending, the suspension of Zlabotny’s license has been stayed, Baldacci said. He now works at a different hospital and has received excellent reviews.

Information about where Zablotny works was not available late Monday.

There is no timetable under which the justices must issue their decisions.

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