By Jeff Gallatin
Bay Village officials are reviewing their options after a federal appeals court reversed a district court’s earlier ruling against a veteran Bay Village firefighter who alleged a city decision helped cause a young boy’s drowning.
A three judge panel from the 6th District U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Dec. 6 that the case be remanded for further action to determine whether statements made by 16-year Firefighter Ron Westmoreland at a September 2008 Bay Village City Council meeting were knowingly false or recklessly made. Westmoreland, a longtime diver and member of the city fire department dive team, alleged that the city’s cutting of the dive team earlier that year as part of a series of budget cost-cutting moves, caused the drowning death of a 12-year-old boy swimming in Lake Erie off Huntington Beach in the Cleveland Metroparks on Labor Day.
Westmoreland contended that if the city dive team had still been in existence, it could have gone in the water and saved the boy. City officials in turn contended the dive team would not have been able to save the boy, noting that a Metroparks Dive Team had been on the beach ready to go in the water when the boy was found.
Civil rights attorney Avery Friedman, who has represented Westmoreland in the ongoing court proceedings since the city suspended him for three shifts after he appeared before city council, said the latest court decision is a victory for Westmoreland and free speech.
“It’s a victory for a firefighter and expert diver who was exercising his rights of free speech,” Friedman said. “He was speaking on a subject he had knowledge of.”
Bay Village Law Director Gary Ebert said the city was disappointed in the ruling and said it was weighing it’s options of having it go back to the federal district court for trial, having the entire 16-member federal appeals court hear the case or attempting to get the United States Supreme Court to hear it.
‘The city of Bay Village’s position remains unchanged,” Ebert said. It should be noted that an independent arbitrator and the Federal District Court both ruled that the city of Bay Village demonstrated that Mr. Westmoreland’s conduct blaming the mayor and the city of Bay Village City Council for the unfortunate drowning death was knowingly or recklessly made.”
Ebert contends that the latest ruling remanded the case for further action to determine whether Westmoreland’s statements were knowingly false or recklessly made.
‘The city believes the 6th Circuit overlooked some key facts that prove that Mr. Westmoreland knew his statements were false and recklessly made. We remain confident that this matter will be resolved in the city’s favor.”
Friedman said if the case goes before a jury the city would have a hard time proving its contentions about false statements.
‘We’re talking about a veteran firefighter and diver, who has taught diving and has extensive knowledge on the subject,” Friedman said. “The city is taking this case personally.”
City Council President Brian Cruse, an attorney who was on council when Westmoreland spoke, questioned Friedman’s motives.
“Mr. Friedman needs to quit trying this case in all the available media outlets,” Cruse said.