Fla. nurse arrested for refusing blood draw

She is seeking nearly $100,000 in lost wages, as well as compensation for pain and suffering and punitive damages against the sheriff’s office for violating her civil rights

The Palm Beach Post

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — An emergency-room nurse at the West Palm Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center said she was just following hospital policy when she told a Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy she couldn’t draw blood from a suspected drunken driver.

Minutes later, Marjorie Lachaud-DePalis was slapped in handcuffs, led to a patrol car and charged with obstructing justice.

While the charge was ultimately dismissed, the feeling of helplessness, embarrassment and anxiety remained, she told a federal court jury Monday.

Fearful of police, who regularly bring intoxicated and mentally ill people to the Riviera Beach hospital, she was forced to give up her job as a night-duty emergency-room nurse to accept a lower-paying day job attending those receiving outpatient treatment.

“I don’t think I can ever work in the emergency room again,” the soft-spoken West Palm Beach resident told the seven jurors. “I just can’t handle it.”

She is seeking nearly $100,000 in lost wages, as well as compensation for pain and suffering and punitive damages against the sheriff’s office for violating her civil rights in connection with the June 2009 incident that she said created a furor among VA nurses and administrators.

Harriett Lewis, an attorney who represents the agency, countered that deputy Kenneth Noel had ample cause to arrest Lachaud-DePalis for violating a lawful order. Noel, she said, had no time to waste to prove his suspicions that a man who was brought to the hospital was intoxicated when he caused a serious car accident.

“The clock was ticking,” she told jurors in opening statements. Officers have a roughly four-hour window before alcohol in a person’s bloodstream dissipates. “He didn’t want to let a drunk driver walk out the door,” she said.

She said the crash occurred about 9:20 p.m. Lachaud-DePalis said she was arrested at about 11:15 p.m.

Lewis asked jurors to think seriously about the potential impact of what Lachaud-DePalis described as hospital policy.

“If this were truly the case, that the VA hospital doesn’t have to draw blood, then they’d become a sanctuary like a church,” she said. “(Drunken drivers) would be immunized, and that’s just not so.”

But, Lachaud-DePalis said, the hospital doesn’t protect drunken drivers. Police are supposed to get another law-enforcement official, such as a paramedic, to draw the blood. In other cases, emergency workers were called.

“It took about 25 minutes,” she said.

The key to the dispute, according to an appeals court, is sorting out what really happened.

Lachaud-DePalis said she told Noel that she had asked a doctor to decide whether she should draw the blood and was awaiting a decision. Noel contends the nurse simply ignored his request while another nurse looked on and snickered.

If the jury believes Lachaud-DePalis’s claims, Noel had little justification to arrest her, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March.

“No reasonable officer could have believed that (state law) provided probable cause to arrest a nurse who had merely passed an officer’s request to the attending doctor and refused to assist him without required authorization,” it wrote.

However, if Lachaud-DePalis simply ignored Noel, he likely had probable cause to slap her in handcuffs.

“By ignoring Noel’s presence and seeking no authorization to draw blood for Noel … she arguably hinders — or obstructed — Noel’s efforts to obtain a sample,” it wrote.

The trial before U.S. Magistrate James Magistrate continues today.

Copyright 2013 The Palm Beach Post
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