BY: KYLE PFANNENSTIEL, Idaho Capital Sun
More than a year after anti-government activist Ammon Bundy and his supporters swarmed a Boise hospital, prompting a shutdown that diverted ambulances to other hospitals, a jury ordered Bundy, his associate Diego Rodriguez and a network of groups to pay $52.5 million in damages to Idaho’s largest hospital system and to the medical professionals they harassed.
Attorneys representing St. Luke’s Health System requested at least $16 million in damages for immediate costs. But attorney Erik Stidham argued the hospital system’s future damages — such as security costs — should be factored in because the groups’ online messages harassing those involved continue to circulate. The health system’s attorneys requested $37 million. The jury awarded all plaintiffs — which include the hospital system and three employees — $26.5 million in damages, but added $26 million in “punitive” costs.
“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. Inaction would have signaled that their menacing behavior was acceptable. Clearly, it is not, and the jury’s decision validates that fact,” Chris Roth, president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, said in a press release after the jury decided.
The ruling, announced Monday in Ada County District Court, caps a lawsuit that has taken more than a year to make its way through the court system. Bundy and Rodriguez have sought to avoid the proceedings by dodging several attempts to be served with legal notices and arrest warrants, and they did not appear or direct attorneys to represent them in the two-week long jury trial.
The lawsuit filed in May 2022 accused Bundy, Rodriguez and their closely linked political organizations — People’s Rights Network and Freedom Man PAC — of defamation and harassment.
The hospital system’s attorneys have also accused Bundy and Rodriguez of hiding their financial assets to avoid being required to pay the lawsuit.
“Where are they now that it is their time to be held accountable?” Stidham, an attorney with Holland and Hart representing St. Luke’s, rhetorically asked the court of Bundy and Rodriguez. “They are hiding.”
Bundy wrote in a July 10 letter posted on the People’s Rights Network website and addressed to Ada County District Court Judge Nancy Baskin, who recently took over the case, that defaulting on the case by not offering a defense in trial “would be the least time consuming and least expensive way to mitigate this lawsuit.”
Bundy also alluded to violence in that letter, as previously reported by Idaho Reports.
“Please do not sanction a war that may end in innocent blood and require others to bring justice upon those who are responsible for shedding it,” Bundy wrote, posting a picture of the judge.
It is unclear how the ruling affects an arrest warrant for Bundy connected to the case.
St. Luke’s lawyers argue Bundy, Rodriguez blocked hospital entrances, harassed employees
The case revolves around doctors ordering Rodriguez’s infant grandchild, who they said showed signs of being malnourished, into temporary child protective care by the state. Bundy and Rodriguez have claimed the infant was healthy and alleged that doctors discriminated against the child because he was unvaccinated.
Bundy, described as “irate” by a security guard who testified during the trial, and a few supporters verbally confronted security personnel in the St. Luke’s hospital in Meridian’s ambulance-only entrance in March 2022 when the infant was first admitted. Bundy was arrested for trespassing early that morning, after refusing demands to leave the ambulance bay. Three days later, a crowd supporting Bundy forced the St. Luke’s Boise downtown location into lockdown for over an hour — blocking medical staff from leaving or entering the building, and forcing hospital staff to redirect new patients to other facilities.
The 10-month-old involved in the case was about 14 pounds, which is average for a 3-month-old infant, Dr. Natasha Erickson testified during the trial. Erickson treated the infant at St. Luke’s. She, along with health system CEO Roth, Registered Nurse Tracy Jungman and the hospital system itself, sued Bundy, Rodriguez and the groups.
When the baby was admitted to the hospital again, Erickson said she was angry.
“Because he was worse the second time,” she said. “And it seemed that he was doing very well while in the hospital and very rapidly declined after discharge.”
Bundy previously pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing stemming from the Meridian hospital encounter, which took place days before the Boise protest.
“The professionals who took this stand, under oath, testified that infant was under risk of death, severely malnourished, dehydrated. And although the doctors didn’t use that term, that infant was starving — and potentially starving to death,” Stidham said.
The doctors who treated the infant were barred from publicly disputing Bundy and Rodriguez’s false claims due to health privacy law, Stidham said.
Bundy has also been twice arrested for trespassing in the Idaho Statehouse in unrelated incidents. He led an armed standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, but was acquitted in federal court, the Idaho Statesman previously reported.
“The Ada county courts are embarrassing,” Bundy texted the Idaho Capital Sun after the order. “This recent verdict confirms everything I have been saying. I am glad I did not participate and legitimize this mockery of justices.”
In a text message to the Capital Sun after the jury’s decision, Bundy said the focus should remain on the infant.
“Massive institutions combined with the state, financially benefiting when they take a child is one of the worst combination a parent can imagine. Therefore, to counter, the cost of stealing a baby must be extremely high and good people must assure strong consequences when it happens,” Bundy wrote. “… People in a jury deciding how much St. Luke’s is going to take from those who exposed them is a mockery to justice.”
Rodriguez, in an email to the Sun, defended his claims as true, said he tried to participate in the court process and called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
“This entire lawsuit is a slap in the face to everyone who cares about freedom and the Constitution, as our constitutional right to Freedom of Speech and to just plain TELL THE TRUTH,” he said, repeating accusations that the health system “kidnapped” his grandson. Rodriguez vowed to continue “to publish the truth” on his websites — “no matter if the final judgment is for a billion or a gazillion dollars.”
Harassment effects ‘every day of my life,’ St. Luke’s doctor says
The lawsuit ordered the following payments from each defendant: $13.5 million from Rodriguez, $12.4 million from Bundy, $10.4 million from Freedom Man Press, LLC, $10.4 million from People’s Rights Network, $3.2 million from Ammon Bundy for Governor — Bundy’s campaign for governor — and $2.6 million from Freedom Man PAC.
Erickson testified that life hasn’t been the same since the harassment started. Her family installed a home security system with three cameras and a doorbell camera. Her kids aren’t allowed to play out front or answer the door. Her doors are locked at all times. And she said it has stuck with her since, keeping her from having small talk with patients.
“It affected every day of my life,” Erickson said.
A Freedom Man Press webpage, as of Friday afternoon, listed Erickson on a list of people it claimed were responsible for the infant’s “kidnapping.”
In court, doctors presented redacted health information on the child, showing that he was below the weight he should have been and even lost weight between two hospital admissions. The child’s parents did not take him to a follow up appointment in March 2022, prompting the child’s primary care provider unaffiliated with the hospital to contact the state health department, which triggered a search by law enforcement, legal filings say.
The Freedom Man Press website, which appears to be linked to Rodriguez, has offered frequent updates on the case. A Florida address listed at the bottom of its website is the same address as Freedom Tabernacle, Inc, which Rodriguez runs. Freedom Man PAC, also named in the lawsuit, is linked to Rodriguez. In October 2020, Freedom Man PAC reported paying Rodriguez’s company Power Marketing $1,371.61. Rodriguez donated Freedom Man PAC an identical amount that month.
Bundy’s business model is central to case, attorney argues
Bundy and Rodriguez pursued a strategic media campaign to boost the recognition of their own groups and fundraise money, Stidham argued. Attorneys presented financial transactions showing some money donated to Ammon Bundy’s campaign for Idaho governor and thousands of dollars went to businesses owned by Bundy and Rodriguez, as previously reported by Boise State Public Radio. The Idaho Secretary of State’s Office has not received campaign finance complaints about those expenses, spokeswoman Chelsea Carattini told the Idaho Capital Sun on Monday.
The media campaign potentially reached 2.5 billion viewers, Jess Flynn, founder and CEO of Red Sky Strategic Communication, testified as an expert witness called by the lawyers representing St. Luke’s. Red Sky’s analysis found that news articles and broadcast clips on television and radio were shared more than 54,000 times on social media, mainly Facebook.
She said the defendants “reached a large audience that were actively engaged in that story.”
If a company had to pay for that performance, it would likely cost $23 million, Flynn testified.
That exposure became advertising to boost the image and memberships in the groups associated with Bundy and Rodriguez, Stidham argued.
Bundy and a handful of supporters first went to the Meridian St. Luke’s Hospital, where the infant was first being treated, just two days after Bundy announced he was running for governor, Flynn noted.
As an independent in the 2022 governor race, Bundy earned 17% of the vote, more than 100,000 votes. While Bundy still came behind Democratic candidate Stephen Heidt and the successful Republican candidate Gov. Brad Little, Bundy had only received about 20,000 fewer votes than Heidt.
Bundy, Rodriguez and their groups were barred from harassing, threatening or intimidating witnesses affiliated with the hospital’s lawsuit, according to a protective order issued in January by Judge Norton, who oversaw the case until last month. But several people who testified, including a hospital security guard, health care workers and law enforcement officers involved in the case, told the court that webpages focused on harassing them were still online during the trial.
As Stidham ended closing arguments, he referenced a quote from Bundy that called the People’s Rights Network “a den of rattlesnakes.”
“That may be one of the true things that he has said,” he told the jury. “That needs to be deterred. That needs to be stopped.”
Breaking down where the money would go
The jury ordered the two largest damages to St. Luke’s Health System, requiring that Bundy and Rodriguez each pay it $4.75 million, along with the People’s Rights Network and Freedom Man Press, LLC, each paying $3.8 million.
The Boise and Meridian hospitals saw 667 more appointments canceled than usual during the week around the protests, from March 12 to 18, St. Luke’s Health System Chief Financial Officer Kate Fowler testified. She estimated the hospitals missed approximately $3.7 million revenue. The health system also has spent $4.6 million hiring about 74 full time security staff, she said.
St. Luke’s Health System is estimated to lose $49 million over 20 years, according to testimony from accountant Dennis Reinstein, who the health system’s attorneys hired as an expert witness.
Reinstein’s assessment was how much the hospital would face in financial losses over 20 years — including $44 million of expanded security — if the health system was paying for all that in today’s money. That assumes inflation and cost of living increases over time. But he offered that analysis for shorter time periods, if the jury decided to reward the health system damages for fewer years.
This story was updated by the Idaho Capital Sun to include additional comment from Ammon Bundy and St. Luke’s Health System CEO Chris Roth.
Kyle Pfannenstiel | Idaho Capital Sun
Kyle Pfannenstiel is a reporter for the Idaho Capital Sun, focusing on health care. He previously worked as media relations manager at University of Idaho and previously covered rural health care and COVID-19 throughout eastern Idaho for the Post Register newspaper as a 2020-21 Report for America corps member.