Every single one of us is a potential Google search at one point or another. Once something is posted about you online, it’s there for all to see. The reality is that our reputations are vulnerable to the damage that can be done from just one post. When that happens, people may have a defamation case on their hands.
The law of defamation isn’t anything new. It’s been around much longer than the Internet. But online, the sense of anonymity can lead people to say some pretty harmful things. And that can have a devastating effect because of the wide reach of any post.
Think of when relationships end badly. Exes may be tempted to vent online. Taken to the extreme, you can be defamed. This is exactly what happened in an astonishing court case recently. A Vancouver man and woman dated on and off but then split up. A month after splitting up, the posts began. Over the course of a year, comments and hashtags about the man flooded in on Instagram and various websites. Those repeatedly accused him of being a cheater, a loser, a drunk, and a liar. They accused him of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. These posts racked up thousands of views.
The man sued the woman and the lawsuit went to trial. For her defence, she did not argue that there was truth in any of the posts. Instead, she argued that those posts weren’t hers. The judge was not convinced after considering the evidence. The judge decided that her posts amounted to defamation and awarded over $200,000 to the man for the damage done to his reputation. As for the posts themselves, the man hired experts to get the defamatory posts taken down before the trial. In its decision, the court ordered that those posts could not be republished by anyone.
This case showed two things. One was the toll that defamation can take on someone. The second was how a civil lawsuit deals with these disputes. I first covered online defamation back in May 2016 with “When Online Defamation Turns Viral”. That was about how a neighbour’s dispute deteriorated into defamatory postings on Facebook. Those posts ruined the victim’s image at his teaching job.
When you really boil it down, defamation is a false statement that harms someone’s reputation. Making a defamation suit is about repairing the damage to that reputation or seeking some consolation or vindication.
The terms libel and slander can get thrown around a lot. Here’s what they actually mean. When you simplify it, libel is a defamatory statement that is in writing and is somewhat permanent. Slander is a defamatory statement that is more temporary. It covers verbal statements. I suppose having a pilot write some defamatory skywriting that quickly disperses in the air can be slander as well.
Where it comes to figuring out a person’s damages in a defamation lawsuit, the court needs to consider how much harm was done to that person’s reputation. For example, in the recent court case involving the exes, the court considered how the victim had a very public profile as a business executive of several companies. He was awarded $175,000 in general damages for the harm to his reputation.
In defamation cases, there are also other economic losses that may be compensated for. If a business loses customers because of a defamatory statement, those losses could be claimed. In that recent case, the man didn’t claim a business loss but he spent almost $30,000 on consultant fees to get the posts taken down. The court ordered the woman to repay the man for those expenses.
If the defamatory statements are particularly heavy-handed, the court may also award what are called “aggravated damages”. In that recent court case, the court found that the woman acted with malice and awarded $25,000 in aggravated damages. This was on top of the $175,000 in general damages and the almost $30,000 in recovered expenses. Clearly, the court found those online posts to be particularly troubling.
“Punitive damages” may also be available in a defamation case. This is, like aggravated damages, reserved for exceptional cases. Unlike aggravated damages, which addresses the harm caused to the victim, punitive damages are designed to outright punish the person who made the defamatory statement.
The Internet is the great equalizer. Everyone’s got a voice online. It’s an incredibly powerful way to reach a wide audience. Whether we go online as friends on social media, dating partners on apps, or as consumers and businesses on websites, we are all tied to one another. The flip side of this is that we are at the mercy of one another’s comments. Anyone can fall victim to personal attacks, harassment, and cyberbullying. When that happens, the law of defamation offers a remedy.
The author’s opinions of this case are based on the court’s published reasons. The author was not personally involved in the lawsuit and has no firsthand knowledge of it or its parties. A decision was made not to include any names of the parties or the hyperlink to the court’s published reasons.
A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or consult a lawyer.