A Garda alert for an ambulance driver suspected of drink-driving was based on “a criminal complaint” by a senior HSE nurse manager that “was wholly without foundation”.
That is according to Judge Brian O’Callaghan, who has ordered the HSE to pay €32,500 in damages to paramedic, Gary Fitzpatrick, 46, of Murroe, Co Limerick, after finding he was defamed by a senior HSE nurse manager four years ago.
At Ennis Circuit Court, Judge O’Callaghan said assistant director of nursing at Ennis General Hospital, Carol Cotter, in making “the criminal complaint” concerning Mr Fitzpatrick was "reckless" in doing so under the meaning of the 2009 Defamation Act and did do so "almost without abandon".
Judge O’Callaghan said Ms Cotter made the allegation “without honest belief” from the point of view of the Defamation Act.
Judge O’Callaghan said if Mr Fitzpatrick had not self-presented at Killaloe Garda Station to take a breath test to disprove the allegation on the day of being a drink driver of an ambulance, “undoubtedly, he would have been stopped at some stage by gardaí, arrested and brought into a station”.
The judge said when Mr Fitzpatrick did present himself to a garda at Killaloe Garda Station on Sunday, March 26, 2017, for a breath test, the garda said into his radio: “Stand down, the ambulance has self-presented”.
Stationed at the ambulance station in Scariff at the time, Mr Fitzpatrick later presented for a blood alcohol test at University Hospital Limerick after the breath test outside the Garda station didn’t provide a printed record of the negative result. The blood test was also negative for alcohol.
Judge O’Callaghan said before Mr Fitzpatrick received a phone call from his line manager advising him to go for a breath test, it was unknown to him “that there was a Garda call out to get the man on his ambulance on suspicion of drink-driving”.
Assessing damages in the case, Judge O’Callaghan said the alleged drink-driving complaint made against Mr Fitzpatrick “is one of the most negative complaints that could be made about a paramedic”.
Judge O’Callaghan said Mr Fitzpatrick’s “reputation as far as this court is concerned is without blemish”.
Judge O’Callaghan said that there were many steps that Ms Cotter should have taken before taking the “drastic action” in phoning Limerick gardaí with the allegation.
Ms Cotter phoned Henry Street Garda Station, Limerick, on Sunday March 26, 2017, after two nurses at the minor injuries unit at Ennis General Hospital told her there may have been a smell of alcohol from Mr Fitzpatrick’s breath.
However, Judge O’Callaghan said the two nurses concerned were "angry" after a stand-off they had with Mr Fitzpatrick over an elderly patient they refused to treat due to a HSE by-pass protocol in place for patients with head injuries.
Judge O’Callaghan said Mr Fitzpatrick and his colleague had brought the patient to the unit from a Clare hurling match at Cusack Park after being provided with a letter do to so by a doctor in order to apply sutures to a wound over the man’s eye.
The two paramedics brought the man on a stretcher to the minor injuries unit but brought him back out to go to University Hospital Limerick after the nurses refused to treat the man.
Judge O’Callaghan said “for some inexplicable reason, the systems within the HSE collapsed on the arrival of the ambulance” containing the patient at Ennis General on that Sunday afternoon.
Judge O’Callaghan said Ms Cotter “wholly and completely relied upon the veracity of two of her nurse colleagues and did not make basic further inquiries that she should have made”.
The judge said in evidence, Ms Cotter “didn’t have a feeling one way or the other when she learned that, in fact, Mr Fitzpatrick had no alcohol and that the complaint she made to the gardaí was wholly without foundation”.
Judge O’Callaghan ruled the HSE defence of qualified privilege didn’t apply in this case.
In evidence, Mr Fitzpatrick said that when he was informed of the allegation “I thought it was a wind-up”.
He said when he realised it wasn’t, “I felt mortified, humiliated and undermined”.
Counsel for Mr Fitzpatrick, Peter Klein BL said not a scrap of evidence was presented to court that his client had any drink taken.
Mr Klein pointed out the two HSE nurses who claimed that there might have been a smell of alcohol from Mr Fitzpatrick were not put forward as HSE witnesses in the case and were not available to be cross-examined. The only HSE witness in the case was Ms Cotter.
Mr Fitzpatrick said as he was working a weekend shift that weekend, the most recent time that he may have been drinking alcohol was the previous Wednesday night.
Mr Fitzpatrick said he was a paramedic for 18 years before the March 2017 incident and has since left the National Ambulance Service.
Mr Fitzpatrick’s partner paramedic on the day, Tina Owen, said the "drink" allegation was "unbelievable". Ms Owen said "it made no sense" and there was absolutely nothing that would give her the slightest concern over Mr Fitzpatrick on the day.
She said the horrible thing from her point of view concerning the allegation “was that I would tolerate Gary driving an ambulance if he was under the influence and expose a patient to that as well”.
In her evidence, Ms Cotter told the court that if she was presented with the same set of circumstances again she would take the same course of action.
She told the court: “When something of that nature is reported, I didn’t have any other option but to take the course that I did.”
Ms Cotter told the court she felt compelled to act on the information that she had received from the two nurses.
She said: “I felt that the situation was time critical and the ambulance had left with the patient. If something happened to that ambulance or patient on the way to Limerick, and I had not acted immediately…”
Judge O’Callaghan also ordered that the HSE pay Mr Fitzpatrick’s costs in the case.