Three former Ontario nurses whose social media posts spread vaccine misinformation and COVID-19 conspiracy theories have appealed the dismissal of a $1-million libel suit against two of their critics — a suit the lower court judge dismissed as “puzzling” and, on appeal, another court said had “a low chance of success.”
Kristen Nagle, Kristal Pitter and Sarah Choujounian, who sit on the board of directors for Canadian Frontline Nurses, launched their libel lawsuit against the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) and Comox, B.C.-based media outlet Together News Inc.(TNI) last January.
In their court filings, the plaintiffs alleged separate editorials published by the defendants critiquing their roles in organizing nationwide protests outside Canadian hospitals during the pandemic caused them “ridicule, hatred and contempt,” and “injured in their feelings, their personal and professional character and reputation.”
Last December, the lawsuit was dismissed as a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, a legal term used to describe gag proceedings meant to silence critics on matters of public interest.
Earlier this month, Justice Marie–Andrée Vermette, who called the plaintiffs’ decision to sue “puzzling,” ruled that, under Ontario’s anti-SLAPP legislation, the three now owe the defendants combined legal costs of $315,000.
Lawyer says plaintiffs ‘weaponized’ proceedings
As Nagle, Pitter and Choujounian appeal, the defendants have called into question their ability to pay and have sought security for the cost of the proceeding from an Ontario Court of Appeal, legal documents show.
In a decision written earlier this month, Appeal Court Justice J.A. Favreau agreed the defendants had valid concerns, saying “the appeal has a low chance of success.” The decision also notes that for TNI, “it will be nearly impossible for them to recover costs if they are successful.”
Favreau ordered the plaintiffs to pay $15,000, saying “there is no evidence that this amount would preclude the plaintiffs from pursuing the appeal” while providing “a measure of protection to the TNI defendants.”
“This case has been a real significant burden on my client,” Paul Champ, the lawyer for TNI, told CBC News on Thursday. He believes the appeal by the CFN is a further attempt not only to silence his client, but also to ruin its finances.
“Practically every newspaper from across the country published really critical stories that were very similar to my client’s and yet they chose to pick on my client,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate that courts can be weaponized in this way.”
Alexander Boisseneau-Lehner, lawyer for the three former nurses, declined to speak with CBC News about the appeal.
“As the matter remains active before the courts, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time,” he wrote in an email.
Affidavit shows CFN, ex-nurses’ finances
According to the provincial regulator, the College of Nurses of Ontario, none of the three is entitled to practise nursing after facing separate disciplinary hearings by a tribunal.
In a 72-page affidavit filed by the plaintiffs in March that details their personal finances, they argue their combined assets would be sufficient to pay for an appeal should it be unsuccessful “assuming those costs will not exceed $220,000,” the document said.
Court filings offer a financial picture of the CFN and each of the three women, who make up three-quarters of the non-profit corporation’s board of directors.
The court documents state that, as of March 28, the CFN had $23,854.06 in cash and is engaged in crowdfunding its legal fees.
Here’s what the affidavit says about the three plaintiffs’ finances:
- Choujounian sold her home in Mississauga for $820,000 last January, earning a $200,000 profit with which she “purchased a modest amount of silver and gold.” She was paid $10,000 for work with Lighting It Up, a holistic healing service where she charged $120 an hour to help people “heal from childhood trauma” or “recover from fibromyalgia,” allowing customers to “finally ditch all the toxic harmful prescription medication.”
- Nagle “is currently unemployed,” since November 2020, the documents said, adding she “is supported by her husband Christopher Nagle, who is employed full time as a teacher.” Nagle and her husband have owned their home in London since 2020, but “there is little equity in the property available” and “she does not current have the ability to pay of the appeal herself.” She still faces a potential $10,000 fine, for violating Ontario’s Reopening Act, that is under appeal.
- Pitter works “as a general labourer at a factory,” earning an hourly wage of $20. While she has jointly owned her home in Tillsonburg with her husband, Craig Pitter, since 2008, the home is mortgaged with “little equity in the property.”
Provincial records obtained by CBC News also indicate Kristal Pitter has liens on two vehicles in Ontario: a Honda Civic and a Ford Equinox.
The documents note she “does not currently have the ability to pay for the costs of the appeal herself” and still owes $17,500 stemming from her disciplinary hearing in front of the College of Nurses of Ontario.