In seeing probes beginning into the actions of city police officers in the arrest of Tim Mitchell in March 2016 and the launching of a $6.5 million lawsuit against the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service by Mitchell himself, there has to be a measure of vindication for Steffanie Petroni, the editor and owner of the digital news website Northern Hoot.
Because a year and a half ago Petroni was under fire from those same officers, facing a $1.5 million lawsuit claiming libel 12 of them had launched against her.
They had a quarrel with a headline on the first story she had written about the arrest of Mitchell and the injuries he allegedly sustained and some general complaints, which I believe were based more on conjecture than fact, about some of her other stories.
When I first read the notice of the libel action to come and later the statement of claim filed by lawyer Wayne Chorney on the officers’ behalf, I found it hard to believe an action had even been considered let alone launched.
After all, none of the officers suing Petroni had been named in any of the stories she had written about the arrest of Mitchell,for failing to comply with a recognizance condition that he not consume alcohol. Nor was there anything she had written that would otherwise have identified any of the officers from the among 140 or so in the Sault Police Service.
The headline which brought a complaint from the officers read: “Sault man fighting for his life after beating from Sault Ste. Marie Cops.”
It was a legitimate complaint. It should have read “after alleged beating.”
The notice of libel submitted by Chorney, which contained no actual names of the officers complaining but only a list of 12 John Does, said: “The plaintiffs require that you immediately publish and broadcast on your website known as The Northern Hoot a full apology or retraction in respect of the defamatory articles and words used in a manner that is at least as prominent as the original publications/broadcast of the defamatory articles and words therein and that you immediately remove the defamatory articles and words from the Northern Hoot website.”
A couple of paragraphs later it said: “The plaintiffs intend to commence an action against you in respect of the defamatory articles and words and reserve all rights in this regard.”
It was here that Petroni got her back up, feeling what was the point of issuing an apology and/or retraction since it was obvious they were coming after her no matter what she did.
Nevertheless, alone at the helm of Northern Hoot, with limited financial resources, she couldn’t help but feel some fear when looking beyond the words in the statement of claim to the numbers.
The fact the officers were coming after her for $1 million in general damages for defamation and were also seeking $500,000 in punitive, aggravated and exemplary damages would have, just looking at the cost of mounting a defence, a tendency to do that to most people.
To an outsider like myself, the large amount of cash being sought by so many officers from a cash-strapped woman who is barely five feet tall seemed to be more in line with the actions of a bunch of bullies rather than of those sworn to protect us.
The names of the officers were revealed in the statement of claim. They were Matthew Keating (John Doe #1); Nick Pino (John Doe #2); Beau Neveau (John Doe #3); Sean Beaulieu (John Doe #4); Ben Bolduc (John Doe #5); David Bascomb (John Doe #6); Frank Carchidi (John Doe #7; Chris Carpinelli (John Doe #8; Levi Vallee (John Doe #9); Steven Potter (John Doe #10); Marty Rowe (John Doe #11); Luigi Runco (John Doe #12).
Other than the one headline, I thought the officers really strained credulity in their complaints against Petroni’s work They claimed the words in her stories were not only defamatory, libelous and slanderous but also in their entirety were to mean that:
a) The arrest of Tim Mitchell was unlawful;
b) The arrest of Tim Mitchell was not authorized by law;
c) The arrest of Tim Mitchell was not in keeping with Use of Force police training and protocol
d) The Sault Ste. Marie police service officers who were involved in the arrest intentionally and without just cause beat up Tim Mitchell;
e) The Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officers who were involved in the arrest were all physically involved and outnumbered Tim Mitchell;
f) The Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officers intentionally and/or negligently processed Tim Mitchell after his arrest while not acting upon and seeking medical assistance with respect to his ostensible injuries;
g) The Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officers were deceitful and “covered up the entire incident:”
h) It is a habit and/or custom of and/or trait of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officers to intentionally injure some of the suspects that they arrest in the course of performing their law enforcement duties.
The statement of claim said as a result of the publications and/or broadcast of the defamatory words, the plaintiffs have been subject to ridicule, hatred and contempt and have suffered damages to their personal reputations and in the way of their office and profession as police officers. Further as a result of the defamatory words and all the repetitious publications and/or broadcast of them, the plaintiffs have been injured in their feelings, in their personal and professional character and reputation and also have suffered personal embarrassment and humiliation.
All this, even though Petroni named none of them in any of her stories
Petroni says she received notice of the libel action, which was dated May 16, 2016, either on that day or the day after.
However, she didn’t receive the statement of claim, which was dated June 30, 2016, until early in December, a few days after the director of the Special Investigations Unit, Tony Loparco, released a report in which he concluded there were no reasonable grounds to lay criminal charges against a Sault Ste. Marie police officer in relation to the injuries sustained by Mitchell, then 54, in his arrest.
The SIU director did not name the officer in his report, although the media did. Loparcoe simply referred to the officer as “the subject officer.”
For the record, he is Matthew Keating, the first officer named in the statement of claim.
It would appear obvious from the dates mentioned that the statement of claim was prepared in June but was held in abeyance until the SIU’s report came out for a reason – the hope it would clear the officer. I have no doubt it never would have seen the light of day if the SIU had found blame.
However, it appears the libel action has ground to a halt anyway, as well it should.
A White Knight in the form of Peter Downard of the Toronto law firm of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin rode to Petroni’s defence, having a notice of intent to defend served on Chorney by fax on Dec. 19, 2016. Filed with the Superior Court of Justice on Jan. 31, 2017, it and an affidavit of service are the last documents in the file.
The complaining officers soon faced another hurdle. In February 2017, Ontario Court Justice John Condon ruled that the actions of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service officers on March 26, 2016, breached Mitchell’s rights under two sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights. As a result he dismissed charges of resisting arrest and failing to comply with a recognizance condition that he not consume alcohol
And now there is the fact that the arrest incident is under investigation again, the Sault Police Service looking into it and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director and the Ontario Police College also being involved.
This is not the stuff successful lawsuits are made of.
I have read the stories Petroni wrote on Northern Hoot over and over. The heading on the original story on April 5, 2016, should have had “alleged” in it.
There also was a sentence in the body of the story, “The Special Investigations Unit from Toronto has been dispatched to investigate Tim’s beating from Sault Ste. Marie police officers,” that should have had an “alleged” in it.
But summing up, there was absolutely nothing in the stories that would warrant a lawsuit.
Actually, one of the stories the officers complained about was an April 8 media release directly from the SIU. It was carried word for word under the headline “SIU Clarifies Timeline in Arrest in Sault Ste. Marie.”
I think that as much as anything showed that the officers really hadn’t put any thought into their suit.
Loparco said in his report that the subject officer delivered a single punch to the man’s left side, just below the armpit, which tests later showed resulted in rib fractures. Once delivered no other force was employed.
A CT scan later found Mitchell had suffered internal injuries, including bleeding and air escaping from his lungs into other parts of his body which resulted in septic shock, acute kidney failure and an irregular heartbeat.
The statement of claim, filed by Toronto lawyer Davin Charney,said several surgeries followed with Mitchell in a coma for about nine weeks and in hospital for three months.
The statement of claim said Mitchell developed serious health problems as a result of the injuries sustained during the arrest, including regular dizzy spells, memory loss, fatigue, reduced vision and hearing and an “irreparable” brain injury.
The last word goes to Petroni.
“I guess in hindsight there’s one detail I wish I could change,” she said in an email. “However, I believe the context of my articles – particularly the first article, clearly indicates that it is the opinion of the family that is being expressed.
“Prior to going forward with this piece I attempted to contact the police for a statement. I can demonstrate phone records- I made at least two calls to speak with the communications officer and left her two messages, spoke with the receptionist and explained that it was urgent I speak with the officer, and sent one email expressing an interest in their comment.
“Several hours later the SIU invoked their mandate and Sault Police released a statement that they would not be providing comment as a result. The Sault Police did not include me in that press release. I went forward with the family’s side of the story.”
She said, “Adding a touch of irony to this is that the Mitchell family refuses to speak to me any further. They believe I am biased and on the side of the Police.”