By ANDREW SELSKY
Far-right activist Ammon Bundy, who led the takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, an associate and three of their groups must pay over $50 million in damages for accusing a hospital of child trafficking and harassing medical staff, a jury has decided.
The defamation lawsuit by St. Luke’s Regional Health accused Bundy and Diego Rodriguez of making defamatory statements against the hospital and its employees after Rodriguez’s infant grandson was removed from his family for several days and taken to St. Luke’s amid concerns for his health.
The emergency room physician, Dr. Rachel Thomas, testified that the 10-month-old baby’s stomach was distended, his eyes were hollow and he was unable to sit up, reminding her of severely malnourished babies she had treated in Haiti, according to the Idaho Statesman newspaper. Police said at the time that medical personnel determined the child was malnourished and had lost weight.
Bundy responded by urging his followers to protest at the hospital and at the homes of child protection service workers, law enforcement officers and others involved in the child protection case. Rodriguez wrote on his website that the baby was “kidnapped,” and suggested that the state and people involved in the case were engaged in “child trafficking” for profit.
Bundy — who didn’t attend the trial nor hire a lawyer, saying it would be too costly — denied in a video he posted Monday on YouTube that the baby was mistreated and said law enforcement and hospital staff put him at risk by removing him from his mother. The baby was healthy except for suffering from cyclic vomiting syndrome, Bundy said, unable to keep anything except his mother’s breast milk down.
The hospital claimed Bundy and Rodriguez orchestrated a smear campaign against it.
Late Monday, a jury at the Ada County Courthouse in Boise agreed, awarding damages exceeding $50 million, the hospital announced.
A statement on behalf of the law firm representing the plaintiffs said Bundy, Rodriguez and their supporters had surrounded St. Luke’s hospital campuses in Meridian and Boise, forcing lockdowns and causing diversion of emergency patients, disruption of planned procedures and cancelation of hundreds of appointments.
“The jury’s decision imposes accountability for the ongoing campaign of intimidation, harassment and disinformation these defendants have conducted,” St. Luke’s said in a statement. “It also affirms the importance of protecting health care providers and other public servants from attacks intended to prevent them from carrying out their responsibilities.”
Bundy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the jury’s decision. But in an interview Tuesday with KBOI News Talk radio, Bundy said he was innocent and called the civil trial “illegitimate.”
“I’ve been a thorn in the side of the establishment here in Idaho for quite a while and this is their mechanism to try to destroy me,” Bundy said, adding that he didn’t have funds to pay the damages.
Lindsay Schubiner, programs director at Western States Center, an organization monitoring right-wing extremist groups, said the verdict “is a moment of real accountability for Ammon Bundy and his reckless campaign against St. Luke’s.”
The jury’s verdict requires Bundy to pay the plaintiffs $6.2 million in compensatory damages and $6.15 million in punitive damages and Rodriguez to pay $7 million in compensatory damages and $6.5 million in punitive damages, according to Holland & Hart, the law firm, representing St. Luke’s. The remainder of the total $52.5 million in damages was assessed to the People’s Rights Network, Freedom Man Press and the Bundy campaign for governor.
Bundy and his People’s Rights Network had earlier carried out protests at the Idaho Statehouse over coronavirus-related measures. He was temporarily banned from the government building in 2020.
In 2016, Bundy led a 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, to protest the arson convictions of two ranchers who set fires on federal land where they had been grazing their cattle. Bundy was acquitted of criminal charges in the matter.
The hospital’s lawsuit was filed more than a year ago. Since then, Bundy ignored court orders related to the lawsuit, filed trespassing complaints against people hired to deliver legal paperwork and called on scores of his followers to camp at his home for protection when he learned he might be arrested on a warrant for a misdemeanor charge of contempt of court.
In 2014, Bundy’s father, rancher Cliven Bundy, rallied supporters to stop officers from impounding Bundy Ranch cattle over more than $1 million in unpaid fees and penalties for grazing livestock on government land. The Nevada criminal case ended in a mistrial.