Pennsylvania Fire Chief Settles Defamation Suit

A defamation suit filed against Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Chief John Yuknavich for statements he had at a council meeting in 2009 has been settled.

Joseph Naperkowski claimed that Chief Yuknavich defamed him on June 1, 2009. He claims that Chief Yuknavich told others that Naperkowski said “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill your mother, I’ll kill your family and I’ll even kill the mayor if he don’t straighten you out.” Naperkowski filed suit seeking $50,000 in damages alleging the statements were “false and defamatory”.

Chief Yuknavich  contended that Naperowski’s claim should be barred because it was made during a public meeting and as fire chief he is immune from the lawsuit. A jury trial began earlier this week but was abruptly terminated yesterday when the parties reached a settlement. There is no word on the terms of the settlement.

More on the story.

As for Chief Yuknavich’s immunity defense, most jurisdictions recognize a number of absolute and qualified privileges against claims of defamation.  Legislators enjoy absolutely immunity for statements made during their sessions. The exact scope of that immunity varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is generally limited to the legislators, not fire chiefs or department heads.

However, many jurisdictions recognize a privilege for executives.  Here is a brief summary from the Center for First Amendment Studies:

There is also an absolute privilege afforded to top rank, “cabinet” or department head level, or other top-level policy-making officials in the executive branches of government, both federal and state. The privilege can be lost, however, if, as in the courts, the statements have no reasonable relevancy to the public official’s duties or the scope of his office.

Here is the link to the Center’s web site.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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