AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that a nurse who allowed a disoriented patient to leave a hospital during a severe snowstorm — the patient subsequently died — was improperly denied a hearing that led to his license being revoked for two years.
The unanimous Supreme Judicial Court ruling was a victory for John Zablotny of Steuben, whose case was sent back to Washington County District Court in Machias.
“On remand, the District Court shall evaluate both the factual and legal issues afresh and make its own independent, nondeferential decision,” wrote Justice Joseph Jabar for the seven-member court.
“This obligates the court to hear the evidence presented, independently evaluate the testimony offered, make its own credibility determinations, and reach its own decision regarding the revocation. In doing so, the court will afford licensees and the public the necessary procedural safeguards that the Legislature intended.”
Joseph Baldacci, the Bangor attorney representing Zablotny, hailed the ruling.
“The [ruling] today overturns the lower decision and the attorney general’s effort to deny us a full and fair evidentiary hearing,” Baldacci said. Zablotny had not been afforded the opportunity to present witnesses, he noted.
“It’s a significant decision,” Baldacci added, because it “has implications for tens of thousands of people who have professional licenses from Maine.”
The burden is on the attorney general’s office to “start from square one,” Baldacci said, and “put on a whole new case.”
Zablotny’s license was revoked by the Maine State Board of Nursing in June 2010 for incompetent nursing practice and unprofessional conduct, and he was ordered to pay a $1,500 fine and the cost of a hearing. The revocation was announced by Attorney General Janet Mills in a case that drew widespread attention.
“The nursing board has a very strong case against Mr. Zablotny and we expect they will move forward with the effort to revoke his license,” said Timothy Feeley, a spokesman for Mills. “The decision today clarifies that this must be re-litigated in the district court.”
Zablotny was the nursing supervisor on duty the night in January 2008 when Eastport resident Reid Emery, 61, who was heavily medicated, asked to leave Down East Community Hospital in Machias. Emery had been brought by ambulance to the hospital on Dec. 27, 2007, suffering from stomach pains.
Nurses advised Emery that he was too weak to leave and that his family was not available to pick him up. Nevertheless, Zablotny provided Emery with discharge papers.
Emery walked out of the hospital and into a blizzard wearing only socks, slippers, jeans and a flannel shirt. His body was found the next day, less than 20 feet from the hospital. Emery was pronounced dead from hypothermia and opiate toxicity.
The trial court’s interpretation of the requirements for a hearing was in error, said Jabar, and so was its denial of Zablotny’s motion to introduce evidence that was presented to the nursing board.
“Because we agree with Zablotny that the court erred in its interpretation and application of ‘de novo judicial review,’ we vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Jabar wrote.
An investigation by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services into Emery’s death found, among a number of other deficiencies, that hospital staff had failed to meet the safety needs of the patient. In response, Down East Community Hospital was given a conditional state operating license in 2008, but with quality improvements in the ensuing years the hospital received full-license status in March 2010.