When nursing puts you in the legal spotlight

 

A nurse caught up in a high-profile court case learned some important lessons about talking to police and getting advice from the NSWNA.

Michael Grant happened to be working in the RPAH emergency department one night when a blood sample went missing from one of his patients.

Michael didn’t think much about it until he got a call from the police a couple of weeks later. The case was to be examined by the Police Integrity Commission to investigate whether the blood sample went missing through corruption or simply by accident, and Michael had to give evidence in court.

He started giving a statement to police at Bondi police station when a colleague rang to advise him to not say anything else until he had spoken to the NSWNA.

Once Michael contacted the NSWNA, he found out more about his rights. ‘It was really important advice I got from the union. Some of the things that I had been saying to the police officer at Bondi may not have been appropriate. Just little comments, saying things like: “he was drunk”, rather than “he smelled of alcohol and he lost his balance”. You can’t make those assumptions in a court of law.’

Michael drew up his statement with a lawyer from the NSWNA. The NSWNA also organised legal representation for Michael in court, as well as counselling about the case.

Michael had just come off night duty one morning and was told that he was expected in court that day. ‘So I was sitting in court all day, wanting to sleep but not being able to. By the time I got on the stand I was a bit messy, yawning and rubbing my eyes. The NSWNA lawyer asked the commissioner to excuse me as I’d been on night duty.’

Michael was on the stand for two and a half hours. He recalled how he had been working a shift on 13 October when a well-dressed man arrived at the ED.

‘He’d had a car accident,’ recalls Michael. ‘We got him into bed and the doctor came and looked at him.’ Michael watched the doctor take the blood sample.

‘I asked the doctor if he put the blood sample in the box, which is what you have to do. The blood sample that was supposed to go in the box went missing, which launched an inquiry by the Police Integrity Commission. It was eventually revealed that the judge was in possession of the missing blood sample, though it is unclear how it came into his possession.

‘In court they kept on focusing on what happened after the blood was drawn,’ says Michael. ‘As much as you think you might know the story, you can only say what you know to be true and what you witnessed.’

The commissioner allowed Michael to go home for a good night’s sleep before he faced cross-examination the next day. At the end of the case, the commissioner praised Michael’s account.

‘The story I gave was clear, straightforward and not confused. I can only put that down to the fact that I went over it so many times with the lawyers from the NSWNA.’

When Michael left court, press photographers followed him down the street and his photo appeared in several newspapers as a key witness in the case.

Michael says he learned an important lesson from the experience. ‘I don’t think I’d even consider making a statement without talking to the hospital’s medico-legal department and the NSWNA. If there’s any chance you might go to court, go straight to the union. You pay your union fees for a reason and they’ve got the resources, they’re there to help you. It was certainly helpful for me.’

Making a statement
If you are present during a patient death, injury or serious incident, you may be asked to make a statement about what happened. You can be asked to make a statement to police, your employer, the Health Care Complaints Commission, the Nurses’ and Midwives’ Registration Board or civil lawyers. These authorities may approach you directly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek advice first. Generally, the statement should be a factual account of what you saw, did or heard – not your opinion or what you think another person saw or heard.
If you are asked to make a statement:

  1. Contact the NSWNA straight away for advice.
  2. Prepare a draft of what happened, using only the facts, but do not submit it.
  3. Submit a copy to the NSWNA so we can provide legal advice.
  4. Remember, the NSWNA is here to protect you and your rights.