SUED FOR DEFAMATION? CONSIDER "I'M SORRY" TO REDUCE YOUR POTENTIAL LIABILITY - IT WORKS.

In Ontario, unlike any other jurisdiction to my knowledge, we’ve made the act of saying “sorry” part of our legal system, for which there are legal ramifications, both for saying it and for not saying it.

In fact, we’ve made it legislation; namely, Ontario’s “Apology Act” (the “Act”).

This is uniquely an Ontario-only legal initiative.

Before the Act, if an apology were made, such as in a defamation case, that apology could be used against the alleged defamer in Court, including to prove the defamation itself and the harm it must have caused.

Not anymore.

Now, an “apology” is legally defined as “an expression of sympathy or regret” and not “an admission of fault or liability in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate.”

Before the Act was passed, an “apology” statement could technically be construed as an admission of your guilt or wrongdoing.

The Act is great Ontario law, because now we can say “sorry” without fear, legally speaking.

In fact, in a defamation case, for example, making an apology often impacts the legal case, or least may reduce the damages awarded by the Court.

Making an apology impacts other types of cases, too, legally, so there is always advantage in considering making an apology and, if so, the maker need not be worried that it would legally be held against he or she – it can only help. 

The Act is fairly short and straightforward – the key parts are highlighted below. 

Apology Act, 2009

S.O. 2009, CHAPTER 3

Consolidation Period: From April 23, 2009 to the e-Laws currency date.

No Amendments.

Definition

1. In this Act,

“apology” means an expression of sympathy or regret, a statement that a person is sorry or any other words or actions indicating contrition or commiseration, whether or not the words or actions admit fault or liability or imply an admission of fault or liability in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate. 2009, c. 3, s. 1.

Effect of apology on liability

2. (1) An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter,

(a) does not, in law, constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter;

(b) does not, despite any wording to the contrary in any contract of insurance or indemnity and despite any other Act or law, void, impair or otherwise affect any insurance or indemnity coverage for any person in connection with that matter; and

(c) shall not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (1).

Exception

(2) Clauses (1) (a) and (c) do not apply for the purposes of proceedings under the Provincial Offences Act. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (2).

Evidence of apology not admissible

(3) Despite any other Act or law, evidence of an apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter is not admissible in any civil proceeding, administrative proceeding or arbitration as evidence of the fault or liability of any person in connection with that matter. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (3).

Exception

(4) However, if a person makes an apology while testifying at a civil proceeding, including while testifying at an out of court examination in the context of the civil proceeding, at an administrative proceeding or at an arbitration, this section does not apply to the apology for the purposes of that proceeding or arbitration. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (4).

Criminal or provincial offence proceeding or conviction

3. Nothing in this Act affects,

(a) the admissibility of any evidence in,

(i) a criminal proceeding, including a prosecution for perjury, or

(ii) a proceeding under the Provincial Offences Act; or

(b) the use that may be made in the proceedings referred to in subsection 2 (3) of a conviction for a criminal or provincial offence. 2009, c. 3, s. 3.

Acknowledgment, Limitations Act, 2002

4. For the purposes of section 13 of the Limitations Act, 2002, nothing in this Act,

(a) affects whether an apology constitutes an acknowledgment of liability; or

(b) prevents an apology from being admitted in evidence. 2009, c. 3, s. 4.

5. Omitted (provides for coming into force of provisions of this Act). 2009, c. 3, s. 5.

6. Omitted (enacts short title of this Act). 2009, c. 3, s. 6.

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WE LOVE TO SAY "SORRY", BUT DID YOU KNOW WE'VE MADE IT PART OF OUR LAW AND IT CAN HELP YOU LEGALLY

In Ontario, unlike any other jurisdiction to my knowledge, we’ve made the act of saying “sorry” part of our legal system, for which there are legal ramifications, both for saying it and for not saying it.

In fact, we’ve made it legislation; namely, Ontario’s “Apology Act” (the “Act”).

This is uniquely an Ontario-only legal initiative.

Before the Act, if an apology were made, such as in a defamation case, that apology could be used against the alleged defamer in Court, including to prove the defamation itself and the harm it must have caused.

Not anymore.

Now, an “apology” is legally defined as “an expression of sympathy or regret” and not “an admission of fault or liability in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate.”

Before the Act was passed, an “apology” statement could technically be construed as an admission of your guilt or wrongdoing.

The Act is great Ontario law, because now we can say “sorry” without fear, legally speaking.

In fact, in a defamation case, for example, making an apology often impacts the legal case, or least may reduce the damages awarded by the Court.

Making an apology impacts other types of cases, too, legally, so there is always advantage in considering making an apology and, if so, the maker need not be worried that it would legally be held against he or she – it can only help. 

The Act is fairly short and straightforward – the key parts are highlighted below. 

Apology Act, 2009

S.O. 2009, CHAPTER 3

Consolidation Period: From April 23, 2009 to the e-Laws currency date.

No Amendments.

Definition

1. In this Act,

“apology” means an expression of sympathy or regret, a statement that a person is sorry or any other words or actions indicating contrition or commiseration, whether or not the words or actions admit fault or liability or imply an admission of fault or liability in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate. 2009, c. 3, s. 1.

Effect of apology on liability

2. (1) An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter,

(a) does not, in law, constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter;

(b) does not, despite any wording to the contrary in any contract of insurance or indemnity and despite any other Act or law, void, impair or otherwise affect any insurance or indemnity coverage for any person in connection with that matter; and

(c) shall not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (1).

Exception

(2) Clauses (1) (a) and (c) do not apply for the purposes of proceedings under the Provincial Offences Act. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (2).

Evidence of apology not admissible

(3) Despite any other Act or law, evidence of an apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter is not admissible in any civil proceeding, administrative proceeding or arbitration as evidence of the fault or liability of any person in connection with that matter. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (3).

Exception

(4) However, if a person makes an apology while testifying at a civil proceeding, including while testifying at an out of court examination in the context of the civil proceeding, at an administrative proceeding or at an arbitration, this section does not apply to the apology for the purposes of that proceeding or arbitration. 2009, c. 3, s. 2 (4).

Criminal or provincial offence proceeding or conviction

3. Nothing in this Act affects,

(a) the admissibility of any evidence in,

(i) a criminal proceeding, including a prosecution for perjury, or

(ii) a proceeding under the Provincial Offences Act; or

(b) the use that may be made in the proceedings referred to in subsection 2 (3) of a conviction for a criminal or provincial offence. 2009, c. 3, s. 3.

Acknowledgment, Limitations Act, 2002

4. For the purposes of section 13 of the Limitations Act, 2002, nothing in this Act,

(a) affects whether an apology constitutes an acknowledgment of liability; or

(b) prevents an apology from being admitted in evidence. 2009, c. 3, s. 4.

5. Omitted (provides for coming into force of provisions of this Act). 2009, c. 3, s. 5.

6. Omitted (enacts short title of this Act). 2009, c. 3, s. 6.

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“RELENTLESS” SOCIAL MEDIA ATTACK – BIG DAMAGES (INCLUDING FOR SPOUSES)

Yet another friendly reminder from your local lawyer to be mindful that every text, e-mail and social media post you transmit, or post may end up as evidence against you in Court.

A recent B.C. case affirms the Court’s increasing willingness to award damages for online attacks, recognizing them as having the same impact as traditional means of communication, if not being more pervasive and insidious.

In this case, a spouse, as a result of a relationship breakdown, engaged in a relentless, vitriolic online campaign against her former spouse, to the extent that the target spouse sued for damages for defamation.

While the case is in B.C., the general principles affirmed by the Court would apply to Ontario, too.  

The posting spouse made more than eighty-five offending posts, all of which were listed in chronology in an appendix filed in the case (nearly fifty pages).  

The posts were made on various sites, including Instagram, using a number of pseudonym accounts and names (which were traced back to the posting spouse).

The B.C. Court held (with respect to the posting spouse):

"Ms. Halcrow mounted a campaign against Mr. Rook that was as relentless as it was extensive…….The courts have recognized that the internet can be used as an exceedingly effective tool to harm reputations. This is one such case."

The Court ordered the posting spouse to pay the target spouse $200,000 in general damages and approximately $40,000 in special damages due to the injury to the former partner’s “reputation consultant” fees.  

The Case:

Rook v. Halcrow, 2019 BCSC 2253

 

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YOU CANNOT BE ARRESTED IF ACTING LAWFULLY – NO “ANTICIPATORY” ARREST – SUPREME COURT

The Supreme Court has now decided that the police have no power to arrest a person who is acting lawfully, even if the justification would be to prevent a potential crime from being committed.

For example, if you were involved in a protest, but you were acting lawfully, the police have no authority to arrest you based on a perceived apprehension that you may breach the peace.  

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that any such power of arrest would substantially interfere with the liberty and freedom of law-abiding individuals and would not be reasonably necessary for the discharge of police duties.

The Court indicated they could not think of any basis for or circumstance in which arresting a person who is acting lawfully in order to prevent, in this case, a breach of the peace, would be reasonably justified.

In fact, according to the Supreme Court, "no such power exists”.

The Case:

Fleming v. Ontario, 2019 SCC 45

 

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SOCIAL MEDIA ATTACKS - PROCEED WITH CAUTION - THE COURT IS WATCHING

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. 

The cases:

Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686 (CanLII)

Rutman v. Rabinowitz, 2018 ONCA 80 (CanLII)

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SO, YOU HAVE BEEN DEFAMED - THE BASICS AND WHAT TO CONSIDER:

Defamation has two forms: libel (written words) and slander (spoken words).

For a defamation case, as person must prove:

1.            the words at issue were defamatory (meaning they would negatively impact the person’s reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person);

2.            the words, in fact, referred to the person complaining about those words; and

3.            the words were published (meaning they were written or said to a person other than the person who is complaining about the words).

Generally, the legal way of understanding 1 above is:

“Expressions which tend to lower the reputation of a person in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally or which expose a person to hatred, contempt or ridicule are defamatory.”

If these three elements are proved, damages are generally presumed and the onus shifts to other person to prove a defence to avoid liability.

There are many defences raised by defendants in defamation cases. For example, if the defendant can prove the words were “true”, it usually means liability is avoided. There are also special occasions that offer protection to those who defame others, such as in Court documents (allegations, etc.). There are a number of other defences available, too, some of which are quite legally complicated.

Ontario also has the Libel and Slander Act, which imposes statutory law to defamation. For example, special notice requirements apply if the defamation is published in the media, for example. In addition, defamation in the context of a person’s profession can also be actionable even if specific (monetary) damages cannot be established.

Sometimes, defamation creates a balance between protection reputation and free speech. This often arises in the context of defamatory statements made in the media or sometimes online.

Generally, damages awards in Ontario for defamation cases are somewhat modest, particularly in cases not involved mass, publication through media.

More cases are emerging over defamatory statements made online, particularly through social media and discussion blogs and forums. Those cases tend to be challenging to deal with, including whether the host of the blog or discussion forum should also face liability.

Ontario also has adopted legislation about apologizing to others. This legislation does not protect a person from liability, but is intended to try to prevent lawsuits from happening and encourage disputing parties to resolve before a lawsuit. If offers some protection to those who do apologize, too.    

Defamation is a fairly specialized legal field. If you feel that you have been defamed, or you are accused of doing so, you should speak to a lawyer qualified and experienced with this area of law. This is a very brief outline about this area of law only, which is quite extensive and often complicated. 

This WARDS PC BLAWG is for general information only. It is not legal advice, or intended to be. Specific or more information may be necessary before advice could be provided for your circumstances.

More information? We're here to help - jason@wardlegal.ca  www.wardlegal.ca

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MY REPUTATION IS DEFAMED ON SOCIAL MEDIA - WHAT CAN I DO? IS TWITTER RESPONSIBLE FOR MY DAMAGES?

Baglow v. Smith - a recent Ontario decision about defamation online - in this case, blogging (political) on a message board. The Court described it as “rude, aggressive, sarcastic, hyperbolic, insulting, caustic and/or vulgar.” 
 
Basically, A sued B, claiming B had defamed him on a political blogosphere message board. A also sued the host of the message board, who created the online forum for the comments exchanged between both A and B. A and B had both posted on the message board, rather aggressively. B took it too far. The Court also held the message board host/moderator liable to A for defamation damages.
 
Take Aways:   
 
1. A moderator or creator of an online message board may be held liable for defamation for posts made by a third party. Here, the host was fairly active on the message board (which likely impacted the Court's decision). However, the case does not make it clear, in my view, if it would readily apply to popular social media sites (Facebook, etc.), where there are so many users.
 
2. The case applied to direct comments made by a user on a message board. It does not establish, in my view, that the same result would apply to, for example, a hyperlink posted, or an indirect statement, such as so-called ' comment boxes' on Web sites or sharing someone else's post on social media, for example. It might be argued it should apply, but the Court does not extend its finding that far, at least not expressly.  
 
3. Blog anonymity may be an important factor - the Court indicated: “[t]he evidence reveals in this case that almost all of the individuals who post or comment on Free Dominion do so anonymously. To adopt the position of the defendants would leave potential plaintiffs with little ability to correct reputational damage.” This may mean that hosts/moderators might only be held liable in future if the identify of the blogger/poster is unknown, or could not be ascertained. If not, it is questionable if the host would be held liable.
 
This WARDS PC BLAWG is for general information only. It is not legal advice, or intended to be. Specific or more information may be necessary before advice could be provided for your circumstances.
 
Defamed online? More information? We're here to help - jason@wardlegal.ca  www.wardlegal.ca
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