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Police reach out-of-court settlement with Covid-19 officer over e-mail claims

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Stephen Corbishley, the Commissioner of Police (File photograph by Akil Simmons)
Bermuda Police Service (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A policeman who took legal action against the Commissioner of Police over an e-mail that told colleagues the officer tested positive for the coronavirus has agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

The amount of the payout was not disclosed, but the Bermuda Police Service said it was “far less” than what was first asked for.

A spokesman for the BPS highlighted that the service disputed the claims in the writ, which was filed in the Supreme Court.

He added that at the time of the incident the BPS “faced an unprecedented situation” related to the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A writ of summons published on the Offshore Alert website said that the plaintiff, whom The Royal Gazette has chosen not to name, was a police officer.

The defendant was listed as “Commissioner of Police”. Stephen Corbishley has held the post since 2018.

The writ said that the officer’s conditions of service included a clause that meant when a staff member was unwell and the illness was “of a confidential nature”, the information would be accessed only by an Assistant Commissioner or someone of higher rank.

The conditions added: “The Commissioner of Police will not disclose this information to any other persons without the written consent of the member.

“The only exception will be during the convening of a Medical Board to discuss the medical discharge of a member.”

The writ, which had a court date stamp of June 24, said that the plaintiff was diagnosed with Covid-19 on March 26 and sent an e-mail to Deputy Commissioner of Police Darrin Simons, who has responsibility for medical affairs.

It added that the email told Mr Simons about the diagnosis and “emphasised” that the officer “did not want all and sundry to know about this, but only to inform those who needed to know”.

The writ said that later the same day: “An e-mail disclosing that the plaintiff had tested positive for Covid-19 was sent from the defendant’s e-mail address, either by his own hand or with his knowledge or consent, to the following individuals:

• All police officers

• All police support staff

• All police reserves

• All police cadets

“The sending of the e-mail was a breach of the plaintiff’s conditions of service.

“Further or alternatively it was a breach of confidence.

“Further or alternatively, it was a misuse of the plaintiff’s private information and breached his right to privacy.”

The writ added: “Information that the plaintiff had been diagnosed with Covid-19 is self-evidently private and confidential and the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation that it would be treated as such.”

It claimed that when the officer learnt about the disclosure it caused “significant stress and distress … at a time when it was imperative to avoid stress in order to maximise the odds of a steady recovery from Covid-19”.

It said the man’s wife also suffered distress, which compounded the officer’s worries when he saw her become “sleepless and physically ill with stress at a time when he relied on her to care for him”.

The writ said: “The plaintiff had to contend with unpleasant and intrusive messages from colleagues and members of the public at a time that he was attempting to recover.”

It added that he found out some police service staff had given him a nickname, which was “hurtful and distressing”.

A BPS spokesman said: “Whilst the BPS disagreed with the action referred to, following legal advice from the office of the Attorney-General, a without prejudice settlement was agreed with the plaintiff.

“However, it is important to note that at the time of the matter in question the BPS faced an unprecedented situation in regards to the early stages of the Covid pandemic, with high tension and worry felt by officers and a complete lack of personal protective equipment available that could be provided to front line resources.

“Knowledge as to an officer testing positive for Covid swept across the service resulting in a very real operational risk that the BPS would not be able to deploy resources to meet public service demand.

“Additionally, it was essential to identify any officers that had come into contact with the relevant diagnosed officer to enable effective contact trace work to be undertaken by the Ministry for Health to mitigate any risk to further transfer.”

The spokesman added: “The BPS disputed that the affected officer was unaware of the decision to communicate across the service to mitigate this risk and no evidence of specific unpleasant or ‘hurtful and distressing’ messages were ever presented by their legal representative, something that would have been addressed seriously by the service as a matter of bullying.

“However, the greater need at that time was to ensure that policing services were maintained at a time of unprecedented need for the country and the matter with the complainant was resolved through a settlement, which cannot be disclosed for legal reasons, but was far less than originally sought by the plaintiff.”

The BPS spokesman said later that details of the payment were “part of a non-disclosure agreement”, but confirmed that the case was settled out of court.

A WhatsApp message circulated last month claimed that an officer was suing the Commissioner for $40,000 in damages “for having his name publicly released with having tested positive for the coronavirus – costs that the taxpayers have to pay”.

The BPS revealed last Friday that Mr Corbishley had tested positive for the coronavirus earlier that week after a short period of overseas leave.

A spokesman added that the Commissioner was “isolated at home for the next 14 days” and in regular contact electronically with his management team.

The plaintiff declined to comment yesterday.