Veteran Bermuda College lecturer Dr. Sean O’Connell, who lost the job he loved following accusations that he had made racist comments, is declaring victory after seven long and “exhausting” years.
An arbitration panel, chaired by retired judge Geoffrey Bell, has determined there was no basis to the accusations, that he was wrongfully dismissed and that he is entitled to monetary damages and full costs. The college and three top officials came in for strong criticism for their handling of the case.
Dr. O’Connell, 68, had also lodged a claim for defamation against then college president Dr. Michael Orenduff. While the arbitrators ruled that a memo Dr. Orenduff wrote was defamatory, Dr. O’Connell was not entitled to damages because Dr. Orenduff is protected by qualified privilege —which is similar to the parliamentary privilege protection that is afforded MPs.
While Dr. O’Connell expressed disappointment with that aspect of the ruling, he was “elated” by the overall result.
“My reputation has been restored,” he said. He also said if the college had agreed to his request for arbitration years ago, the case would have long been settled.
His lawyer Liz Christopher described the ruling as a “total vindication of his character”.
Dr. Samuel Miller, a former Bermuda College chemistry lecturer who has publicly supported Dr. O’Connell in his fight and came to Bermuda from Barbados to give evidence on his behalf, told the Sun by e-mail yesterday: “I am heartened that Dr. O’Connell’s name and reputation have both been cleared.
“I am dissatisfied to learn that there is a factor termed ‘qualified privilege’. This allows individuals to be shielded from legal action during the course of their duties. This reminds me of the Westminster parliamentary system where one can make defamatory statements and suffer no legal repercussions. This to my mind is unfair.”
“This has been a long and arduous seven-year journey that regrettably began in 2003 under a different administration and organisational culture. The college has since implemented modern and transparent policies and practices for dealing with disciplinary matters which have become an integral part of its management training.
“No further comment will be made regarding this matter as some aspects of the ruling are being appealed.”
Dr. O’Connell took issue with the college’s claim of success with regard to defamation. He said: “It’s a technicality, it’s shirking responsibility. It does not mean it was not defamatory. It was defamation without justification. It twists the truth of it.”
Semi-retired journalist Meredith Ebbin first reported on this matter when she was on staff at the Bermuda Sun.