Increasingly maligned victims on social media resort to the Court for redress. The Court is becoming more intolerant of defamatory conduct online, to the extent that significant damages may be ordered against the traducing party. No longer does the Internet shield against vilifying another online.
There have been several notable cases.
For example, fairly recently a B.C. Judge awarded over $65,000 in damages against a woman for publishing untrue and unsubstantiated statements and accusations on Facebook about her neighbor, suggesting him to be a pedophile, including that he placed mirrors and cameras in his backyard to spy on her children.
It appears the case initially erupted as a neighbor dispute regarding a fish pond and backyard waterfall. The municipality was eventually involved, too, but could not effectively assist the neighbor.
The Court held that her “viral” social media posts were “venting” and “completely false and unjustified” and negatively impacted her neighbor and his career as a teacher. The woman removed her Facebook comments, after the neighbor demanded she do so, within about twenty-four hours, but the damage had already been done. For example, someone in the community had contacted the Principal of the neighbour’s school expressing concerns about him, after reading the Facebook statements.
Amongst other criticism of her, the Court said: “The seriousness of Ms. Van Nes’s defamatory Facebook post, her replies, and the comments of her ‘friends’ cannot be overstated,” and “An accusation of pedophilic behaviour must be the single most effective means of destroying a teacher’s reputation and career, not to mention the devastating effect on their life and individual dignity.”
“He now faces the challenge of repairing the damage Ms. Van Nes has caused, if that is even possible at this point”, the Court concluded.
The vilifying party was ordered to pay to her neighbor $50,000 in general damages, $15,000 in punitive damages and $2,500 for nuisance. She was also ordered to pay a hefty part of his legal expenses. Lastly, and for good measure, presumably, she was ordered to turn off the waterfall in her backyard pond every night between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
More recently, Ontario’s Court of Appeal awarded $700,000 in an online defamation case involving a targeted and malicious online campaign involving business partners. The Court, noting the immediacy, permanency and “pernicious effects” of Internet defamation, held the business partner’s online posts were “unrelenting, insidious and reprehensible” over a “lengthy period”. Despite that the targeted business partner testified that he was unaware of any specific injury to his reputation in the community, significant damages were ordered. The Court’s decision highlights that a dollar amount cannot readily be ascribed to a person’s reputation.
Furthermore, the damages were awarded against another person, who was held to have participated in the business partner’s general plan and facilitated this behavior, even though he was not directly involved. Accordingly, a person need not directly participate in the online defamation, but be exposed to joint and several liability for that tortious conduct.
Misguided users of social media should certainly not assume they are protected from liability if they defame another, just as if they had done so by any other means.
Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686 (CanLII)
Rutman v. Rabinowitz, 2018 ONCA 80 (CanLII)