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Fourteen months after St. Luke’s filed a defamation lawsuit against Ammon Bundy and another far-right activist — neither of whom ever came to court — the case has reached a conclusion.
The 12 jurors deciding damages in the civil action filed back into the courtroom early Monday evening to announce what Bundy, close associate Diego Rodriguez and their various entities would be ordered to pay the health system and other plaintiffs.
The verdict: a total of $26.5 million in compensatory damages and $26 million in punitive damages.
The $500,000 extra in the compensatory category came as a result of the jury’s finding that violations of the Idaho Charitable Solicitation Act by Rodriguez and his Freedom Man Press business had harmed the plaintiffs.
Compensatory damages are intended to repay plaintiffs for losses experienced because of defendants’ actions and punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for their actions.
“Taking legal action is not something we take lightly. But standing up to the threats, bullying, intimidation, disruption and self-serving actions of the defendants was necessary,” St. Luke’s CEO Chris Roth said in a news release Thursday night. “Inaction would have signaled that their menacing behavior was acceptable. Clearly, it is not, and the jury’s decision validates that fact.”
St. Luke’s attorney Erik Stidham told the jury on Friday that he thought $37 million would be the fairest number for compensatory damages and $16 million should be the minimum amount considered. He did not suggest an amount for punitive damages.
“My hope is that you will look at this and you will deter (Bundy) in a way that he hasn’t been deterred yet,” Stidham said in his closing statements.
Bundy and Rodriguez led protests at the St. Luke’s hospitals in Meridian and downtown Boise in March 2022 over a child welfare case involving Rodriguez’s 10-month-old grandchild. The lawsuit named as defendants both men, Bundy’s People’s Rights Network, Bundy’s campaign for governor, and Rodriguez’s Freedom Man website and political action committee.
The suit said the defendants then posted multiple lies online about the hospital system, its employees and the reasons the baby was taken into custody. Over the past two weeks, St. Luke’s laid out in court via witness testimony and displays the volume of material that had been circulated by the defendants.
In the end, all were hit hard monetarily:
Ammon Bundy: $6.2 million compensatory, $6.15 million punitive
People’s Rights Network: $5.2M compensatory, $5.2M punitive
Ammon Bundy for Governor: $1.55M compensatory, $1.65M punitive
Diego Rodriguez: $7M compensatory, $6.5M punitive
Freedom Man Press/Freedom Man PAC combined: $6.55M compensatory, $6.5M punitive
The jury weighed several questions in determining damages, including the making of defamatory statements about each plaintiff by defendants; publicly casting the plaintiffs in a false light; and intentionally inflicting emotional stress on the plaintiffs. Damages were awarded in all of those areas.
“The Ada County courts are embarrassing,” Bundy told the Idaho Statesman in a message. “This recent verdict confirms everything I have been saying. I am glad I did not participate and legitimize this mockery of justices.”
The only two questions in which the jury awarded no damages involved whether the defendants were trespassing on St. Luke’s property at the hospitals in Boise and Meridian.
A number of health professionals testified during the damages trial that they had treated the baby for severe malnutrition and that he was in dire need of care.
“In my opinion, if he had been allowed to go home with his parents and continue on the trajectory he was on, he would have died,” said Rachel Thomas, a St. Luke’s emergency room doctor.
Stidham said the defendants, through videos and blog posts, spread lies that the hospital was working with the government to take children away from Christian families to be sexually abused and given to gay couples. He alleged that businesses and groups belonging to Bundy and Rodriguez were a “massive ugly machine built to make money and radicalize people.” He said lying about the welfare case was a way to get people to donate to their causes.
After Bundy, who was running for Idaho governor at the time, and Rodriguez repeatedly failed to appear in court or respond to a judge’s orders, they were found in default, meaning they essentially forfeited the case, leaving it to head to the damages portion of trial.
In addition to St. Luke’s, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Roth and two medical professionals who worked on the child’s case, Dr. Natasha Erickson and nurse practitioner Tracy Jungman. All plaintiffs were awarded millions in damages by the jury.
The St. Luke’s release said that any monetary damages collected for the health system or Roth would be donated to St. Luke’s Children at Risk Evaluation Services (CARES), “a program dedicated to the belief that every child deserves to be safe, heard and supported,” and to other programs that support at-risk children.