Board Member Statements Absolutely Privileged From Defamation Lawsuit By EMT

Norwood Baybridge was an emergency medical technician for the City of Ortonville, Minnesota. On July 6, 2006, a nurse on an ambulance transfer found Baybridge to be inattentive to his duties. The nurse noted that Baybridge failed to log the patient’s vital signs, made personal phone calls, and at one point, appeared to be taking a nap. The nurse reported the incident to her supervisors; another EMT on the transfer made a similar report to the City.

The ambulance service in Ortonville is controlled by an Ambulance Board. At the next Board meeting, the situation with Baybridge was discussed by Board members. Board members engaged in a fairly freewheeling discussion not just of the July 6, 2006 incident, but other complaints against Baybridge.

Eventually, the Department offered Baybridge the opportunity to resign. When Baybridge refused to resign, the City placed Baybridge on a work plan. Baybridge responded by filing a lawsuit, contending that the statements made by Board members constituted defamation of character.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, finding the Board members’ statements protected either by “absolute immunity” or a “qualified privilege.” As the Court analyzed it, “absolute immunity bars a defamation suit, for doing so serves the public interest by allowing government officials freely to address matters pertinent to the performance of their assigned duties. Discussing EMT performance is part of the Board’s job; it assists other decision-makers within the City, and it helps to serve the ultimate public end, which is effective emergency medical care. Most important, a Board member might be deterred from raising patient-care issues if being sued was a possibility. Frankness and fairness better serve everyone’s interests. The statements at the Board are immune from defamation, libel, and slander claims.”

Baybridge v. City of Ortonville, 2009 WL 910972 (Minn. App. 2009).

This article appears in the June 2009 issue