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Ronkonkoma school bus company found liable in driver's firing

Baumman & Sons Buses Inc., based in Ronkonkoma,

Baumman & Sons Buses Inc., based in Ronkonkoma, lost a lawsuit brought by a driver who was fired. The jury agreed that action was based on false and defamatory information. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A State Supreme Court jury in Westchester County has awarded nearly $500,000 to a former driver who claimed a Ronkonkoma school bus company and others used false and damaging remarks to take away his job.

Peekskill resident Alfred Peter Diorio alleged that Baumann & Son Buses Inc., two managers, the Ossining School District, where Diorio drove a bus, and two officials there produced or acted on defamatory information that painted him as "a ticking time bomb" and unfit to drive children.

After a 13-day trial, a six-woman jury agreed with Diorio, and on Nov. 15 awarded him $484,506, including $304,000 in future wages over eight years. The judge who presided over the case signed off on the jury's findings on Feb. 21.

Claims against all the defendants except two were either dismissed by the judge, or the jury found no liability. Those remaining two -- Baumann and Diorio's direct manager, William Hietmann -- were found liable for defamation.

The company's attorney said it would appeal.

"Sometimes juries make mistakes, and this verdict, with respect to both liability and damages is simply wrong," Richard Hamburger, of Hamburger, Maxson, Yaffe, Knauer & McNally in Melville, said this week.

But Diorio's attorney, White Plains lawyer Clifford L. Davis, said the award will stand. "Courts are reluctant to set aside a jury's verdict," Davis said.

At the heart of the case is an email that Heitmann sent to Mary Fountain, an Ossining School District transportation supervisor, who was initially named in the suit.

In that Sept. 8, 2008, missive, Heitmann, who had become Diorio's supervisor about four days earlier, alleged that Diorio "threatened to drive his car over" safety supervisor Carlos Sanchez after he asked Diorio to slow down while driving his car to the bus yard.

In a later meeting about the incident with a union representative, the email said, Diorio started cursing and said the company "conspired" to have Heitmann bring charges. Heitmann concluded in the email that the incidents "set a pattern of behavior . . . that I can only call irrational."

On Sept. 10, two days after receiving the Heitmann email, Fountain, the Ossining supervisor of transportation, sent a letter to Baumann asking that Diorio be removed from service. And Baumann terminated him on that day, after seven years of service.

Diorio sued in October 2010. In an affidavit, he said that Heitmann didn't like him because he "inquired" about a new system for keeping track of keys on a board and Heitmann "believed I was challenging his authority" and "insulting his wife," who suggested the idea.

And he claimed that Sanchez, a defendant in the case, was coached to lie about the parking lot incident in a memorandum that the jury determined wasn't defamatory.

A local attorney not involved in the case worried about the verdict's consequences.

"I fear this case will have a chilling effect on school districts that worry about large jury verdicts when deciding how to protect our children," said Robert D. Lipman of Lipman & Plesur in Jericho.

But he added, "This case should also remind supervisors that they must be responsible when documenting issues in the workplace."

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