Ontario judge dismisses ‘puzzling’ $1 million libel action by anti-vaxx nurses
An Ontario judge has dismissed a $1 million libel suit brought by three nurses who were disciplined for their anti-vaccine views during the pandemic, calling the plaintiffs’ decision to sue ‘puzzling’ and « surprising ».
Kristen Nagle of London, Ont., Kristal Pitter of Tillsonburg, Ont., Sarah Choujounian of Toronto and Frontline Nurses of Canada filed a lawsuit under the province’s anti-SLAPP law in December 2021 , alleging that the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) and British Columbia media outlet Together News Inc. (TNI) damaged their personal and professional reputations with separate online articles published in the fall 2021.
SLAPP, which stands for strategic prosecution against public participation, is a legal maneuver traditionally used by the rich and powerful to intimidate, silence and/or bankrupt opponents. Ontario introduced legislation in 2015 designed to prevent such gag proceedings from using the courts to silence expression on matters of public interest.
The ANC commentary can be read here. TNI’s article can be read here.
In her 29-page decision released Dec. 23, Superior Court Judge Marie-Andrée Vermette sided with the defendants, saying the plaintiffs « have not established that they suffered sufficiently serious harm. » and « have not demonstrated a causal link between the harm they allege and the publications in question. »
Vermette cited the anti-SLAPP legislation, saying there were « far greater sources of harm » to nurses’ reputations that were « unrelated » to the publications, including:
- Investigations into the professional misconduct of the three nurses by the province’s nursing regulatory body, the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO).
- The fact that the three nurses were terminated from their respective jobs for just cause.
- Numerous media reports about the nurses, including articles from what the court called « leading media organizations. »
Vermette also questioned the plaintiffs’ decision to sue in the first place, calling it « puzzling » given that similar information appeared in « many » other articles published in Canada.
She also said the decision to specifically sue TNI, “a small regional media organization,” was “particularly surprising” because the plaintiffs “chose to ignore similar expressions made by media giants.”
« No comment » from the plaintiffs’ lawyer
The CBC was specifically cited in Vermette’s ruling, which noted that Nagle « said that the CBC ruined his career and destroyed his life. Plaintiffs did not sue the CBC for defamation. »
CBC News attempted to clarify the statement made by Nagle, who did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
We were surprised that they decided to go after a small Vancouver Island media outlet. I think they underestimated us and to their detriment.– Will Horter, Editor of the VanIsle News Network
Alexander Boissonneau-Lehner, the plaintiffs’ attorney, responded « without comment » in an email when reached by CBC News on Tuesday.
The court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit under anti-SLAPP legislation is the latest judgment against anti-vaccine and anti-science groups trying to use the courts to silence and intimidate critics.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, SLAPPs were the traditional tactic of the rich and powerful to silence critics, but the legal tactic has been increasingly used of late by those spreading misinformation. on health in an effort to silence critics.
Defendant calls action « classic SLAPP suit »
« It was a classic SLAPP suit in the sense that they were just trying to shut us up, » Will Horter, editor of the VanIsle news network, which is owned by TNI, told CBC News on Tuesday.
“We were surprised that they decided to go after a small media outlet on Vancouver Island,” he said. « I think they underestimated us and to their detriment.
« We’re glad the judge made the decision she made, » Horter said. « I think this is an important victory for truth in Canada in an age of misinformation. »
« The ANC is very pleased that the court found that the public interest was to protect the ANC statement, » Lucas Veiga, the ANC’s public affairs officer, wrote in a text message on Wednesday.
“CNA takes seriously its role as an advocate for the nursing profession, the health care system and the health of people living in Canada.
Now that the judge has dismissed the lawsuit, the three parties must agree on costs.
Under Ontario’s anti-gag law, defendants are entitled to full costs of litigation, unless a judge orders otherwise.
Vermette wrote in her decision that she would hear arguments to determine damages in January if the parties could not agree on costs.