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Nurse awarded over $500,000 in defamation suit.

CASE ON POINT: Alterra Healthcare Corp. v. Campbell, 2D10-4444 (11/9/2011)-FL

CASE FACTS: In March of 2002, Michelle Campbell, a Registered Nurse, began working as a floor nurse at Alterra's Care Bridge Assisted Living Facility. There she met Fancie Cales, the health care coordinator and Michelle's direct supervisor. Their relationship soon became strained. Michelle resigned due to a workplace conflict with Fancie. Thereafter, Michelle was employed by Maxim Healthcare (Maxim), a temporary nursing agency. In May of 2004, Eric Flock, Residence Director of Alterra's Sterling House Facility, contacted Maxim to request a temporary nurse for the 3:00 p.m., to 11:00 p.m. shift. Maxim assigned Michelle to work the shift. Upon Michelle's arrival, Fancie, then a nurse supervisor at Sterling House, approached Flock and asked him to send Michelle home. Fancie told him that she had worked with Michelle at another facility and that she was "bad news." She also told Flock that Michelle had been suspected of stealing narcotics from that facility. Flock responded that Michelle would work the shift unless Fancie agreed to work it. At the start of the shift, Michelle and the off-going nurse conducted a med count of the meds prescribed for Sterling House patients. Most of the residents' medications were prepackaged in blister packs for ease of dispensation and control. The blister packs were stored in a locked, removable box that itself was stored inside a locked medication cart. The door to the nursing station would automatically lock whenever a nurse or medical tech left the room. Sterling House maintained three sets of keys to the nursing station, medicine cart, and medication lock box. One set was carried by the nurse or a medical tech (If the tech was authorized to dispense meds), another set was kept in Fancie's office, and a third set was kept by the pharmacist. During her shift, Fancie asked Michelle for the keys to the nursing station to access some charts. She returned the keys to Michelle about ten minutes later. Michelle also gave her keys to another employee several times during the course of her shift so that the employee could access necessary items from the nursing station and so that the employee could lock the facility. At the end of her shift Michelle performed the count procedure with the incoming medical tech. The tech reported that she noticed some of the blister packs appeared to have been opened and then taped back together. A state investigator noted that the tech refused to sign off on the log book but that Michelle signed it and turned her keys over to the tech and left at the end of her shift. Michelle stated they discovered a medication error resulting from one patient's receiving the wrong dosage of medication. Michelle asked the tech to call a supervisor to discuss incident reporting procedures. Michelle left a message for Fancie on her voicemail. Michelle maintained that after starting to complete the incident report, she and the tech finished the count "with no further problems." Michelle turned her keys over to the tech, signed the log book, and left. She thought the tech signed the log book at that time, though she did not actually see her do so. Michelle did not learn that any drugs were missing until Maxim notified her two days later. Maxim also told her that hydrocodone and oxycodone pills had been switched out for other pills in some of the blister packs. Michelle voluntarily submitted to a urine drug screen, which was negative. She was arrested and charged with repackaging an adulterated or misbranded drug, trafficking in oxycodone, causing a drug to be a counterfeit, obtaining a controlled substance by subterfuge, and furnishing a false controlled substance form. It was undisputed that at her first appearance before a judge, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence for Michelle's arrest. When Michelle attempted to go back to work at Maxim she was notified that she had been fired. Michelle filed suit against Alterra for malicious prosecution. After a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict for Michelle and awarded her $364,537 for compensatory damages and $175,000 in punitive damages, for a total of $539,657 in which amount the trial court entered judgment. The trial court denied the defendants' motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) and a new trial. The defendants appealed.

COURT'S OPINION: The Florida Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment entered by the trial court for Michelle. The court held, inter alia, that there was no evidence upon which a jury could rely in finding for the defendants. The court noted that even if the defendants could not have known the information given to authorities was false at the time it instigated proceedings, surely it should have known that the information might have been false once the drug thefts continued after Michelle was fired. Further, the court noted that although Flock attempted to report one subsequent drug tampering/theft incident to the detective assigned to Michelle's case, he never reported the incident involving another employee whose drug screen was positive, despite the fact that the same employee worked shifts just prior to Michelle's on the day in question. The court noted that Flock also failed to report either incident to Michelle, her attorney, or the State Attorney's office. Such information might have resulted in dropping the charges at an earlier point in time

LEGAL COMMENTARY: Contrary to the report of Flock and Fancie that no other drug thefts had occurred prior to Michelle's assignment to Sterling House, Sterling House had an average of five drug thefts a month! Was someone out to get Michelle?
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Title Annotation:Nursing Law Case on Point
Publication:Nursing Law's Regan Report
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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