An employee falsely charged with theft and terminated from her employment sued for defamation. She was awarded $224,481 in damages. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the verdict in Gambardella v. Apple Health Care, Inc., No SC 17977 (May 19, 2009).
Laurie Gambardella worked as a nursing home admissions counselor. She met an Eleanore O'Sullivan in the course of admitting O'Sullivan's aunt, Fannie Lauro, who passed away shortly after being admitted to the nursing home. When O'Sullivan came to the nursing home later to retrieve some of Lauro's property, she took what she wanted and told Gambardella she could have the rest, which included furniture and other items. Gambardella selected a couple of chairs; a nursing supervisor, Busk, removed a dresser. Gambardella told the facility's maintenance man, Stolfi, that the rest of the furniture could be used as needed in the facility. Stolfi contacted John Sweeney, the facility administrator.
Sweeney asked Gambardella about the disposition of Lauro's property. He told her that there was a corporate policy against accepting gifts from residents and/or their families; Gambardella then returned the chairs. O'Sullivan was contacted and confirmed that she had told Gambardella she could have the items. Sweeney then contacted O'Sullivan himself and she again confirmed the account. O'Sullivan then sent a letter repeating that "the property had been left for the plaintiff to keep for herself or distribute to others in her sole discretion."
Despite O'Sullivan's repeated written and oral recitations that Gambardella had been given the property, Sweeney resolved that Gambardella had engaged in theft. That Gambardella was fired on an allegation of theft leaked and, as the court noted, "other people, including the plaintiff's daughter, also had heard that the plaintiff had been fired for 'taking furniture from a dead lady....'"
Gambardella sued for defamation. She was awarded damages, including punitive damages, in total sum of $224,481, upon a finding that "defendants had published false allegations of theft to third parties, which constituted defamation per se."
The employer argued that the statements concerning Gambardella were immune from liability under the qualified intra-corporate privilege. This qualified privilege protects communications between managers regarding an employee's job performance and/or termination. However, the qualified privilege is lost where there is a showing of actual malice or malice in fact. "Actual malice" is shown by the publication of a false statement with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. "Malice in fact" is shown by the publication of a false statement with bad faith or improper motive.
The court concluded that Gambardella had proved actual malice in the making of the false statements. First, the court noted that the evidence was unchallenged that O'Sullivan had given the property to Gambardella not the facility. Second, the defendants' reliance on the corporate policy concerning gifts was misplaced, because theft is a specifically defined criminal offense. Third, the court noted that Busk had also received an item of furniture and had not been fired. Finally, the court rejected defendants' claim that they believed Gambardella had stolen the property: "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."