A nurse and a nursing aide who left a frail patient to chew on chicken without supervision have been found guilty of causing his death in 2012.

Nurse David Sant and nursing aide Carol Bonnici were working at Karin Grech Hospital in March 2012 when the 64-year-old dementia patient was found lying face-down on a bathroom floor, dead. He had gone missing from his ward and was found to have choked. 

The two hospital workers were found guilty of involuntary homicide on Monday and fined €7,000 and €4,000 respectively. Chief nurse Maria Bondin, who also faced charges, was cleared of all wrongdoing by magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech.

The court found that the two workers had, despite their good intentions, failed in their duties.

The court heard how the victim, who had suffered a stroke, had been given chicken to eat on the day of his death. Chicken was considered suitable food for him, provided that it was properly mashed and that the patient was supervised as he ate.

Following the patient's death, new rules for what constituted 'soft food' were introduced.

A note stuck to the patient’s bed read “Position for Feeding: seated/propped up” and “Supervise during feeding.

His wife neverthless told the court how she would often find her husband eating alone, without supervision.

Nurse Sant was responsible for the patient, with Ms Bonnici as his aide. The two had six patients in their care, with nurse Bondin in charge of the ward.

At the time of the incident, Ms Bonnici had been feeding another patient in another room.

Magistrate Frendo Dimech began hearing the case in 2018, with it having been handed to her from a different magistrate. 

Statements the accused had given to the police were discarded as there was no lawyer present during interrogation.

Similarly, the court discarded a report drawn up by the Mater Dei Hospital legal office about the internal inquiry, which had been presented but not confirmed on oath and therefore had no probatory value.

The court found that Ms Bonnici had fallen short of the standard of diligence expected of her. It found that Mr Sant was also negligent and had admitted that he had not checked whether the patient had actually eaten.

His failure to supervise led to the death of a patient entrusted to his care, the magistrate ruled.

He knew that the patient liked to eat, that he was at risk of choking and that his dementia made him prone to wandering, the court said. All this meant there was a greater duty to supervise him when there was food around, it added.

The court however noted that there were attenuating factors at play at the time. Mr Sant was looking after a trainee nurse, while Ms Bonnici was feeding a patient who was far more vulnerable than the victim.

They also reported to work earlier than they had to, which was a testament to their dedication, the court said.

Chief nurse Bondin, on the other hand, had done nothing wrong, the court said.

“On the contrary, in the very unfortunate circumstances of this case, Maria Bondin did everything she could to ensure that the patient is given the best care. Her efforts to save his life were also noted,” the magistrate said.

The court found Mr Sant and Ms Bonnici guilty of involuntary homicide, but said that their negligence did not merit effective prison time.

Neither could be considered a threat to society, the magistrate said, and society would not benefit from their imprisonment.

Both had clean criminal records and their negligence was not due to not caring, she added.

The court noted that it was not requested to liquidate damages.

It cleared Maria Bondin of all guilt, and fined Mr Sant and Ms Bonnici, who were also ordered to pay the €1,644 due to court experts in the case.

Superintendent Dr Jeffrey Azzopardi prosecuted and Dr Stefano Filletti represented the patient's family.

Lawyers Stephen Tonna Lowell and Kris Scicluna represented Mr Sant and Ms Bonnici. Lawyers Michael Scriha and Lucio Scriha represented Ms Bondin.