Employer Loses Privilege in Defamation Case

May 14, 2009 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Employers facing a potential defamation suit from an employee can't necessarily hide behind a qualified privilege by saying they thought the disputed statement was true, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled.

The decision came in the review of a trial court’s ruling that the owners of an extended-care facility operated by Apple Health Care had defamed employee Laure Gambardella by firing her for allegedly stealing from a patient.  According to Business Insurance, Gambardella worked as an admissions counselor at Apple’s Waterbury, Connecticut facility.

The three-judge state high court panel agreed with the lower court that there was no evidence to back up the theft charge againstGambardella – even though it was discussed in front of several co-workers at a meeting convened to terminate Gambardella’s employment.

The employer had gone through with the firing, even though an investigation had backed up Gambardella’s claims that the niece of a deceased patient had given her permission to take items from the patient’s belongings; Gambardella had chosen two chairs.  

The Connecticut high court asserted that it is “clear that the settled law in Connecticut is that a showing of either actual malice or malice in fact will defeat a defense of qualified privilege in the context of employment decisions.”

The Supreme Court continued: “It is axiomatic that a defendant who closes his eyes to the facts before him cannot insulate himself from a defamation charge merely by claiming that he believed his unlikely statement. We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of actual malice.”

A trial court judge found defendants in the case liable for defamation and awarded Gambardella $224,000 in damages plus costs.

The Connecticut Supreme Court case is available  here .