Barrister’s internet defamation: He fought the law and the law won: Dods v McDonald [2016] VSC 201

During the evening of 11 December 2008, Tyler Cassidy, a 15 year old boy had stolen two large knives from Kmart at Northcote Plaza Shopping Centre, near All Nations Park. He moved through the shopping centre, its shops and car park, threating people with the knives and demanding that the police be called.

By the time he was in the park, four officers, including the plaintiff, Leading Senior Constable Colin Dods arrived at the scene. There was a confrontation between Cassidy and the police, and Cassidy refused to obey their calls to throw down the knives. He started to slowly advance towards the police in a threatening manner. Dods was separated from the other officers and Cassidy advanced towards him with knives in hand. Dods gave a warning shot which Cassidy ignored and continued to advance.

Dods feared for his life and fired two shots into Cassidy’s legs. When Cassidy continued to advance, the other officers fired several shots towards him. Cassidy was hit and died at the scene minutes later.

The Coroner

The Coroner

There was public outrage, there was media and eventually there was a Coroner’s Inquest that was held to investigate the death in late 2010. The hearing took 36 days, the findings ran for 129 pages and had 696 paragraphs. The findings were publicly available and the Coroner found that:

  • Dods did not contribute to Cassidy’s death;
  • Cassidy was shot when Dods was at risk of serious injury or death;
  • Dods was a dedicated police officer and had responded within the limitations of his training.

The defendant, a Queensland barrister, uploaded a website:  On it, he wrote a whole raft of allegations, including material that was published about Dods. The plaintiff sued on the website, which included the following words:

Who, or what, then, is Colin DODS?

Why do we know absolutely NOTHING about the individual who holds the record for killing the youngest person in Australian history, ever killed by a Police Officer?

Dods argued that the first publication meant and was understood to mean that he:

  1. Executed Tyler Cassidy;
  2. Shot and killed Tyler Cassidy without any or any adequate reason;
  3. Committed manslaughter.

The second publication that Dods sued on, also on the website, included the following words:

Tyler Cassidy did nothing to give 3 Victorian Police Officers the licence to execute him on 11 December 2008. He was a good, 15 year old kid, having a bad day, who acted impulsively and emotionally, under provocation. For that one bad decision, he was executed.”


Who killed Tyler & why has nobody been charged?

It seems that the Victorian Attorney-General and the Victorian Police Minister are unaware that Victorian Police Officers are subject to the Law. It is unlawful for them to use force that is out of proportion to any threat posed by an alleged perpetrator. It is clear that, at least 1 of the 3 Victorian Police officers, Sergeant Dods, used excessive force which was out of proportion to any threat posed by Tyler Cassidy, when he fired 6 shots at Tyler and killed him…..

Tyler would have been blinded by the capsicum spray and, as experienced Police Officersm those 4 police officers, especially Sgt Dods, would have known that fact. In the circumstances, it should have been a relatively simple matter for the 4 trained Police officers, one of whom was an experienced Sergeant, to overpower Tyler, without anybody being harmed. It may have taken longer than 3 minutes to do so, but it should have been possible. They were in a 13 hectare park. There were no members of the public around; there were 4 highly trained and heavily armed Police Officers on the one hand and a slightly built, agitated and half-blinded teenage boy on the other.

The question that must be answered is why did 4 trained Police Officers fail to subdue a slightly built, inexperienced and partially blinded teenager, other than by shooting 6 bullets into him and killing him!

…… they should ensure that, at the very least, Sgt Colin Dods is charged with the offence of manslaughter.”

Dods alleged that this meant that:

  1. He executed Tyler Cassidy;
  2. He shot and killed Tyler Cassidy like he was a monster and a dangerous mongrel dog;
  3. In shooting at Tyler Cassidy six times and killing him, he unlawfully used excessive force out of proportion to any threat posed by Tyler Cassidy;
  4. He chose to shoot Tyler Cassidy, a slightly built, inexperienced and partially blinded boy, six times when he knew or ought to have known that he and other police present could have otherwise overpowered Tyler Cassidy without anybody being harmed.

In July 2012 and January 2013, Dods emailed the defendant and stated that, in light of the Coroner’s findings, the allegations against him on the website ought to be withdrawn and the defendant should apologise. He never apologised. The matter went to trial.

The defendant was a barrister from Queensland

The defendant was a barrister from Queensland

In the course of the litigation, the defendant  pleaded four versions of a defence, the last of which was filed at the start of the trial. He variously claimed the following defences at various times: qualified privilege for discussion of government and political matters, truth, contextual truth,  fair comment, honest opinion, fair report of proceedings of public concern and triviality. He also alleged that the claim was statute-barred.

By the time the trial came around, the defendant argued only that the claim was statute-barred because there had been no publication in the 12 months before proceedings were issued and claimed triviality. All other defences were dumped.

The trial proceeded in front of a jury in late 2015 and ran for 6 days. The defendant himself did not give evidence and at the end of the plaintiff’s case, made a submission that he had no case to answer and did not have to call any evidence at all.

The basis for that was a claim that the plaintiff had only called evidence from one person, a friend, who had read the website during the 12 months before proceedings were issued. It also was the case that she had read the material previously and so the defendant argued because she had read it before, re-reading it was not enough to prove publication.

Justice Bell dismissed the application to have the case thrown out. His Honour concluded:

  • The plaintiff’s case was not just based on evidence of publication to one person, but was also based on an inference from the rest of the evidence that other people had read the website. His Honour found that given the public notoriety of the case, such an inference could be made and directed the jury in that way; and
  • As a matter of law, evidence of the witness who downloaded and read pages from the website containing the statements inside the limitation period was evidence of publication to her even though she had previously downloaded and read the page. This was because it was a case of continuing publication by the defendant.

The matter then went to the jury to answer the questions:  did the website convey the imputations complained of? Did the defendant have the defence of triviality? In layman’s terms: the pie in the sky defence.

The plaintiff was a member of Victoria Police

The plaintiff was a member of Victoria Police

The jury found for Sergeant Dods. Yes, the website was defamatory. For starters, it meant that Sergeant Dods had executed Tyler Cassidy: That is defamatory. It also meant that he gunned down Tyler Cassidy like he was a monster and a dangerous mongrel dog: That is defamatory. Further, it meant that by shooting him, he had committed manslaughter: Very defamatory.

It was then for Justice Bell to assess damages. His Honour found that Sergeant Dods had a good reputation as a respected member of the community and sergeant of police. That he had suffered intense distress, humiliation and embarrassment. That it caused great harm to his reputation and that despite a limited scope of publication, it was necessary to award him a sum to vindicate his reputation and to “nail the lie”. It was necessary to demonstrate to all the world that the defamatory publication represented a baseless challenge to the moral foundation of the plaintiff’s personal integrity and to his public standing. All nice reading for the plaintiff.

Also, His Honour found that the circumstances justified an award of aggravated damages. The reasons included that the defendant had failed to apologise, despite knowing of the Coroner’s findings and had persisted with a raft of defences, including truth, right up until the commencement of the trial, when they were abandoned.

As for the damages, His Honour landed on the figure of $150,000. A hefty price for the defendant to pay. Pretty sure that he will also be left with costs of the trial, and perhaps considering whether he should have relied on his discussion of government and political matters defence after all.



Posted in Damages, Defamatory meaning, government and political matter, News, Publication, Trial | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dank v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2016] NSWSC 295. Number of days in Stephen Dank’s defamation trial – 20. Judgment Awarded – Priceless

The plaintiff

The plaintiff

Since 2013, the Australian sporting landscape has been dominated, not by any particularly amazing footballer, cricketer or athlete. No, it has been dominated by Stephen Dank – “sports scientist”. He is the man responsible for bringing into the Australian conscience a range of strange sounding peptides, unknown Mexican amino acids and apparently useful horse supplements. He also brought them into the bloodstreams of elite sportsmen across different footballing codes in different states and for different teams.

Most noteably in the AFL, where Essendon had 34 of its players found guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs in 2012. That regime was created by Dank and those players cannot play football this year, having been suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. They can only commentate on tv….Meanwhile, the coach of Essendon from that time, James Hird, continues to familiarise himself with the expanses of the Australian legal landscape and either gets benefactors to pay his legal costs or he sues other people to pay them.

As for Dank, from 2013 he took up more column inches than any politician, actress or country in the Middle East. But to date, he has remained silent. He has left it to his barristers to do the talking, which they have had to do a lot of recently in NSW.

In that State, Dank had plied his wares at the Cronulla Football Club in 2011. The result of that jaunt was that players there accepted bans and a media frenzy ensued. Among the frenzy were six articles published by The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph at various times in 2013. Dank sued on all of them and his juggernaut of cases were rolled into 3 proceedings that were heard by a jury in the NSW Supreme Court in one hit over 20 days in February and March this year.

First matter

Very broadly, the first matter complained of related to allegations published in The Sunday Telegraph that Dank had injected players at Cronulla with Warfurin, a blood-thinning medication.

The article published comments by the club doctor’s daughter on her Facebook page that:

In 2011, the doc turned up to a pre-season game to discover training manager Trent Elkin had employed a ‘sports scientist’ named Stephen Danks (sic). The doc was not informed, nor consulted about this decision.

Shortly after, the doc discovered mysterious heavy bruising on some of his players. He discovered that Danks had been injecting them with warfarin, a blood thinning medication, in an attempt to increase oxygen flow.

Concerned about the welfare of his beloved players, the doc confronted Danks and Elkin about what they were doing. When they refused to tell him, Doctor Givney resigned … in protest.”

The allegation that Dank had been injecting players with Warfurin was wrong. There was



no evidence that the drug was used.

Dank pleaded four imputations arose from the article and won on two of them. The imputations pleaded were:

  1. The plaintiff caused the Cronulla football players to be at risk of sustaining fatal injuries: Jury held that this was conveyed, but not defamatory of Dank;
  2. The plaintiff oversaw the administration of the medication Warfurin on Cronulla football players which caused heavy bruising and endangered their health: Jury found this was conveyed, was defamatory and was not true;
  3. The plaintiff oversaw the administration of a physically dangerous medication to Cronulla football players: jury found this was conveyed and defamatory, but that it was true; and
  4. The plaintiff injected the Cronulla players with Warfurin thereby endangering their welfare: jury found this was conveyed, defamatory and not true.

The defendants did not run a truth defence in relation to the injection of Warfurin, and so Dank won on those imputations in the first article. Just a matter of assessing the damages.

Second and third matters

The second and third matters concerned the provision of Dank’s supplements to a player named Jon Mannah, who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009. He was among the group of players that received Dank’s supplements and his disease later progressed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he died in early 2013 at the age of 23.

For these matters, the media quoted from a secret independent report provided to the Board of the Cronulla Football Club. The following extract from the report was published:

Based on the chronology it appears Mannah was administered with substances including CJC-1295 and GHRP-6 during the period from March to May in 2011. A brief review of available published medical literature suggests an identified causal link between the use of substances such as CJC-1295 and GHRP-6 and the acceleration of the condition of the disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

So for the second matter, the jury found that the articles conveyed the following meanings, which were defamatory of Dank:

  1. The plaintiff administered to football players peptide drugs (CJC-1295 and GHRP-6) which were prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Authority;
  2. The plaintiff acted with reckless indifference to Mannah’s life by administering dangerous peptides to Mannah whilst Mannah was in the remissions stage of cancer;
  3. By administering peptides to Jon Mannah the plaintiff accelerated Mannah’s death from cancer;
  4. The plaintiff administered dangerous and cancer causing supplements to Jon Mannah and other football players thereby exposing them to risk;
  5. The plaintiff’s conduct in administering peptide substances to football players was absolutely indefensible and justified one of Australia’s leading sports physicians to express his horror;
  6. The plaintiff acted with reckless indifference to Jon Mannah’s life because he administered untested peptides to Mannah whilst Mannah was in remission from cancer.

Seriously defamatory stuff….  But the jury found that it was all true. Dank lost.



The third matter was an article headed “Police look at Mannah death”, and it reported that the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) had handed information it held relating to Mr Mannah to the NSW police to assess whether criminal charges should be brought. The article did not name Dank, but he sued on it all the same. The jury found that the article conveyed none of the meanings alleged by Dank. Another loss for him.

Assessment of damages on the two Warfurin imputations

The assessment of damages was then a matter for Her Honour Justice Maccallum, in light of the jury’s findings. Dank won the two imputations relating to the injection of Warfurin, but lost on everything else. The defendants relied on all of the true imputations, essentially submitting that the  truth of all of them overwhelmed the defamatory impact of the two Warfurin imputations and submitted that damages should be nominal.

The evidence established that Warfurin was a dangerous drug and that its administration to young men competing in contact sport “would be most unwise”. There was no evidence that Dank had injected any player with Warfurin.

There was evidence instead that Dank supplied “BB Formula” to Cronulla, which the club doctor stated was recommended “for animal treatment only” and described as “a unique rice bran extract emulsion. A feed supplement for horses in training.” BB Formula was not approved for therapeutic use in Australia.

The defendants called expert evidence from Professor Salem, who gave evidence that the administration of BB Formula would be akin to a person receiving a platelet-inhibiting drug, which was “very dangerous”, its effect being that blood clotting and bruising would not repair properly. Professor Salem also gave evidence that the combining of different anti-platelet drugs without strict medical supervision was dangerous because it invited a major bleeding, and said:

People are well known to die from this [a combination of anti-platelet drugs]. It can bleed in the brain, have a major stroke and die from it.”

Counsel for the plaintiff attempted to show that Professor Salem was exaggerating. He did so by stating in cross-examining that the combination of BB Formula and Lactaway (another supplement that had been referred to) was “a dangerous cocktail, almost as bad as cyanide”.

Professor Salem agreed.

Not good for Dank.

Based on that evidence, the jury found that Dank had overseen the administration of a physically dangerous medication to Cronulla football players.

Her Honour concluded that she was satisfied that the sting of the two Warfurin imputations was substantially true, even though there was no evidence of injecting actual Warfurin. Her Honour stated:

The substance in question was not Warfurin; it was a substance intended as a feed supplement for horses. It might have sounded harmless but it had not been appropriately tested for therapeutic use by humans. It should not have been used on football players.”

This meant that the mitigating impact of the true imputations reduced the damages, not

In 2012, Essendon's Jobe Watson won the Brownlow Medal for the AFL's Best and Fairest. He is now suspended for taking performance enhancing drugs that year.

In 2012, Essendon’s Jobe Watson won the Brownlow Medal for the AFL’s Best and Fairest. He is now suspended for taking performance enhancing drugs that year.

just to a nominal amount, but worse for Dank: zero. Plus he has to pay the media’s costs of the 20-day trial. Even Shane Warne could not spin that result. Unmitigated disaster for Dank.

Maybe he can ask James Hird if he knows anyone who could pay the costs?


Posted in Damages, Defamatory meaning, News, Trial, Truth, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Artists’ appeal upheld, record verdict set aside and re-trial ordered: Vakras v Cripps [2015] VSCA 193

In 2014, a gallery owner, Raymond Cripps was awarded a record $420,000 defamation verdict in the Victorian Supreme Court. The verdict was made by His Honour Justice Kyrou against two surrealist artists, Demetrios Vakras and Lee-Anne Raymond. They held an exhibition with Cripps’ gallery in 2009 and were so unhappy about their experience that they each published websites that were critical of Mr Cripps. He sued them in defamation.

There were three publications and the websites were found to be defamatory. The most significant imputation that was found in favour of the plaintiff related to a comparison by Mr Vakras of Mr Cripps with Hitler. It was referred to as “the Hitler Imputation” and no doubt that it was a critical foundation in the verdict of $350,000 damages for Mr Cripps as against Mr Vakras. The remaining $70,000 was awarded to Mr Cripps as against Ms Raymond for a separate website publication which did not mention Hitler, but was otherwise critical of Mr Cripps and his ability and actions as a gallery owner.

The artists appealed to the Victorian Court of Appeal, and before Chief Justice Warren and Appeal Justices Ashley and Digby, they were largely successful. The damages verdict against Mr Vakras was set aside and a new trial was ordered. However, the damages verdict as against Ms Raymond remained in tact.

Victorian Supreme Court

Victorian Supreme Court

Certain meanings were pleaded by Mr Cripps to have been conveyed by the three publications complained of, and the Court of Appeal noted that the trial judge was entitled to find for the plaintiffs on a meaning which was not pleaded, but was a permissible variant, so long as it was “not substantially different from and not more injurious than” the pleaded meaning. However, the problem for Mr Cripps was that the trial judge went further and in six instances, found that the publications conveyed defamatory imputations that were neither pleaded by the plaintiff, nor by the defendant. Further, the judge gave no indication that he might make a finding on his own meanings [31].

Counsel for Mr Vakras claimed that three of the meanings were outside the plaintiffs’ pleaded case and outside the meanings pleaded by the defendants, including the Hitler Imputation. This infected many of the imputations that were run and won by the plaintiff at trial … but were then lost on appeal.

There were a number of imputations pleaded in the case against both defendants, including that Mr Cripps:

  • was a disgraceful individual (the Disgraceful Imputation;
  • was a bellicose bully (the Bully Imputation);
  • made a profit from the exhibitions, and deliberately inhibited the artists’ capacity to promote the exhibition and caused it to fail (the Profit Imputation);
  • had a pattern of intimidating behaviour that left artists too fearful to describe their own negative experiences to the public (the Intimidating Imputation);
  • sexually harassed volunteers and staff at the gallery (the Harassment Imputation); and
  • repeatedly destroyed exhibitions of artists who exhibit with his gallery (the Destruction Imputation).

But it seems that the Hitler Imputation was the most significant. Once that was overturned on appeal, it seemed that a re-trial became a formality.

The Hitler imputation

Turning to the publication itself, the Court of Appeal referred to a passage in Mr Vakras’ publication that began by describing Mr Cripps as a self-confessed racist and that he was a “manifestation of the new-left who have adopted the sentiments Hitler expressed in Mein Kampf, but who believe that, though theirs and Hitler’s sentiments are the same, their racism is a `justifiable’ one.” Mr Vakras had also hyperlinked from his website to an article: “Hitler’s disciples: the new racism of the political left”.

The plaintiff pleaded that the first publication by Mr Vakras carried the meaning that: Mr Cripps is a racist who has embraced the view of National Socialism [133]. The defendants then pleaded that it meant that: Mr Cripps is a racist who holds views that are similar to those of Adolf Hitler, which they asserted was true [134].

In considering this, the trial judge asked: “Is Mr Cripps a racist or an anti-semite?”, and answered in the negative. He concluded that criticism of Israel did not mean that a person was necessarily anti-semitic.  The trial judge also had regard to evidence from other people that Mr Cripps was not a racist and did not hate Jews, and then concluded that Mr Cripps did not say what the defendants attributed to him in disputed conversations with the artists on 18 and 24 June 2009. Credit was a big part of the findings in relation to those conversations.

The trial judge made all sorts of findings on the credibility of the parties and they were largely adversely made against the defendants. But the Court of Appeal did not feel the need to address those because the resolution of the appeal did not require it [83]. However, it was noted by the Court of Appeal that the trial judge made findings that the defendants had deliberately lied in their evidence, even though they were not even cross-examined on that, no final submission was ever made to that effect and the trial judge made those findings without any indication at trial that he might do so [76].

Back to the Hitler Imputation, despite what the parties pleaded, the trial judge found that the sting of this imputation was that: Mr Cripps was a racist who condoned the atrocities that Hitler committed based on his views that the Aryan race was superior to all other races and that Jews should be exterminated [142].

Counsel  for Mr Vakras submitted that such an imputation did not arise and that the credit findings which the trial judge made had also led him into error. The Court of Appeal accepted those submissions [149].

At [150], the Court of Appeal unpacked Mr Vakras’ first publication and concluded that it must have been evident that he had embarked on a “philosophical exercise” with a “chain of reasoning” and was as follows:

The thesis – whether or not it was logical, attractive or correct – was not difficult to understand, as the reader would see. It went this way: (1) Hitler resorted to Biblical text to justify his racial exterminations – specifically, of the Jews. (2) Muslim Palestinians who kill Jews justify what they do by resort to text in the Koran; (3) the common feature of the killing of Jews by Hitler and of Jews by Muslim Palestinians is justification by resort to religious texts; (4) `new-left Nazis’ who support Palestine, who regard the Palestinians as oppressed by the Jews, and do not disapprove the killing of Jews by Muslims, are racists. Their sentiments are the same as Hitler’s, but they consider their racism justifiable; and (5) for Cripps, the killing of innocent Jews by Muslim Palestinians was justified. Thus, he was a racist, a manifestation of `new-left Nazis”.

The Court of Appeal found that this was what was imputed. So the meaning was not that Mr Cripps condoned Hitler’s atrocities based on his Aryan race superiority and the trial judge made an error in finding that. There were then consequences from that error. The trial judge found a meaning that went beyond the plaintiff’s case, and it also led to the truth defence being considered on a false basis. This then meant that the damages verdict had to be set aside and a new trial ordered [151-155].

Other issues

There were several other imputations fought over and other errors found, but really, once the error was found in relation to the Hitler imputation, the matter always had to be remitted for a new trial. This was clearly the most serious and probably the most significant basis of the fight between the parties.

Otherwise, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial judge was correct in rejecting the defendants’ qualified privilege defence [91], even though the artists had a moral or social duty to inform other artists who might have been considering exhibiting at the gallery about Mr Cripps, and those artists had a reciprocal interest in receiving the information [339]. But the publication by the defendants on websites was to the world at large, they were not specialised types of websites and therefore not protected by qualified privilege [344, 346].

The Court of Appeal also dismissed the appeal by Ms Raymond in relation to damages awarded against her in relation to other imputations.

All in all, the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial on two of the five causes of action, including Mr Cripps’ action against Mr Vakras with respect to the first article [112]. In all:

  • Mr Vakras’ appeal against the judgment in favour of Mr Cripps was allowed and judgment set aside.
  • On the first article, there would be a re-trial of the “profit” and “Hitler” imputations and the plaintiff could re-plead on the “disgraceful imputation
  • On the second article, there would be a re-trial of the “intimidating” imputation and if the plaintiff was allowed to re-plead, on the “harassment” imputation.
  • Raymond’s appeal  against judgment in favour of Cripps was dismissed
  • Costs orders were set aside.

So the matter will return to the Supreme Court for another trial. Maybe this will be the Victorian Supreme Court’s answer to the Gacic proceeding in NSW that went for a decade…


Posted in contextual truth, Damages, Defamatory meaning, Qualified privilege, Trial, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hockey hoists Fairfax on its own placard: Hockey v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd [2015] FCA 652

Joe Hockey

Joe Hockey

On 5 May 2014, Fairfax, through the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times, ran a series of articles about a Liberal Party fundraising entity called the North Sydney Forum. North Sydney is the seat held by Australia’s current Treasurer, Joe Hockey. The articles were headed “Treasurer for Sale” or “Treasurer Hockey for Sale” and Hockey was infuriated. So infuriated that he sued. Three separate proceedings were heard as one, in a trial which took place in the Federal Court (which is itself unusual) in March this year.

This was high stakes litigation, probably the biggest defamation trial in Australia for the last decade. He claimed that the articles conveyed some or all of the following imputations about him:

  1. He accepted bribes paid to influence the decisions he made as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia
  2. He was prepared to accept bribes paid to influence the decisions he made as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia;
  3. He corruptly solicited payments to influence his decisions as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia;
  4. He is corrupt in that he was prepared to accept payments to influence his decisions as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia;
  5. He corruptly sells privileged access to himself to a select group which includes business people and business lobbyists in return for donations to the Liberal Party;
  6. He knowingly permitted a Liberal Party fundraising forum with which he was associated to accept money from the corrupt Obeid family.

This is serious stuff. Hockey put his political career on the line. Even if he lost as a result of a clever technical defence, what would the public perception be? Could he then possibly become Prime Minister?

It was a massive gamble by the Treasurer but at the end of it, on 30 June, Hockey emerged with a $200,000 victory, a nice end of financial year bonus for him and probably a massive relief.

The win will undoubtedly be characterized by Hockey and the Liberal Party as emphatic, but for lawyers who read the judgment, the full story is not so clear. If anything, Hockey was very clever about how he pleaded his case and Fairfax might have been a bit unlucky.

The reason is simple. Justice White of the Federal Court concluded that none of the actual articles written about Hockey and published nationwide in hard copy or on the internet, were actually defamatory of him.

No doubt those articles were thoroughly vetted by Fairfax’s lawyers before they were published, and in His Honour’s view, the articles did enough to water down the effect of the controversial headline “Treasurer for Sale”. Justice White concluded that the actual content of the articles, when read as a whole, were not about Joe Hockey being bought, they did not mean that he accepted bribes or was corrupt [95], [150], they did not mean that Joe Hockey corruptly solicited payments [101]-[102], they did not mean that Joe Hockey actually received payments personally [127], but the articles, when read as a whole, were actually about the process where the North Sydney Forum offered “private access” to Joe Hockey at seminars and private functions, for the payment of political donations to the Liberal Party, and this was not corrupt but an acceptable form of political fundraising [118], [123], [129], [151]. It was really the headline that Hockey relied on.

So here comes the clever bit: besides the articles themselves, Hockey also sued on at least

North Sydney Forum

North Sydney Forum

two other separate publications, being Fairfax’s promotions of the articles apart from the newspaper. They were snippets where Fairfax tried to get people in to read the full story:

  • 2,466 placards were put up outside newsagencies throughout Australia, mainly in New South Wales. These placards only carried the headline: “Exclusive Treasurer for Sale Herald Investigation”, in large letters, and nothing else.
  • Two Fairfax Tweets which also stated “Treasurer for Sale” and then hyperlinked to the full articles.

Whether Fairfax ran these separate publications past their lawyers before going ahead is unclear, but without the supporting content of the articles themselves, once Justice White concluded that they were to be treated as separate publications, Fairfax were in a world of trouble. What does it mean to simply state “Treasurer for Sale” or “Treasurer Hockey for Sale”? How could that not be defamatory? Justice White concluded simply that it was.

His Honour concluded that the placards meant that Fairfax had carried out an investigation which had revealed matters indicating that Joe Hockey was “for sale” and that the newspaper contained a report of what the investigation uncovered. It did not state that what was “for sale” was a form of access to Hockey in the context of a means of commonly accepted political fundraising [167]. His Honour went on to find that these words meant that Hockey engaged in conduct that involved his willing receipt of payment of an improper kind, being a form of corrupt conduct [168], [171].

Justice White also made an important finding that the Tweets were separate publications to the articles that they hyperlinked to. Their meaning ought to be determined separately from the content of the hyperlinked article. The evidence showed that The Age had around 280,000 followers on its Twitter account and only 789 of those downloaded the hyperlinked article. Clearly, people may have read the Tweet without going further [207]. His Honour then concluded that the Tweets bore the same meaning as the placards, essentially being that Hockey engaged in corrupt conduct [209], [211].

Fairfax did not claim truth, fair comment or honest opinion as a defence. It could not. It claimed defences of qualified privilege at common law and pursuant to section 30 of the Defamation Act. To win on these defences, Fairfax had to basically prove that it had acted reasonably in publishing the placards and the Tweets. Hockey also asserted that Fairfax should be denied the defences because it acted with malice.

Strictly, these issues only needed to be decided in relation to the placards and the Tweets, but His Honour went further and considered whether Fairfax acted reasonably in publishing the articles. It was conceded that the publications contained discussion of government and political matter [222], but His Honour concluded that Fairfax would be unable to rely upon a defence of qualified privilege (either at common law or under section 30 of the Act) because Fairfax, through its journalists:

  • did not act reasonably [238]; and
  • alternatively, was actuated by malice [415],[420].

This was because His Honour found that Joe Hockey was not given sufficient opportunity by Fairfax to respond to the allegations before publication [246], [247], [360], [372] and that although Fairfax provided a set of questions for Hockey to answer before publication, none of them raised, among other matters, the question of sale by Hockey of access to him in return for political donations, which was a big part of the story [362].

Fairfax Media

Fairfax Media

Further, His Honour reached the conclusion on malice because Mr Darren Goodsir, the Editor in Chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, acted with the improper purpose of seeking to injure Joe Hockey’s reputation [406], [411], [415]. A blow for Fairfax and its journalistic independence. The nub of the criticism was that, although Goodsir was found to be a generally reliable witness, a good deal of the contemporaneous evidence indicated that he was intent on getting back at Hockey [399]. His Honour concluded that Goodsir had lost objectivity and if not for his desire to get back at Hockey, he would have probably had gone for a less provocative headline [411].

What happened was this: in March 2014, Fairfax carried an article which stated that a company that had links to the Obeid family (which name is synonymous with corruption in NSW [77]), was previously a member of the North Sydney Forum and had received a refund of its membership fees. The article claimed that Hockey had refunded that company’s membership fees. Fairfax were wrong because Hockey had never received nor refunded those funds personally [257]. Hockey’s office immediately complained and demanded a retraction.

After a series of telephone calls that were made around 1am in the morning following publication of the article, Fairfax decided to “apologise” and it published a statement [272] which Justice White described as “not really an apology at all…. no more than a statement of regret” and “bore a begrudging quality about it” [402].

Hockey’s barristers claimed that the “Treasurer for Sale” articles, which appeared in May 2014, were acts of payback by Fairfax because they were unhappy at having had to apologise to Hockey in March [376]. This was based on the internal Fairfax documentation, namely that after having published the “apology” in March, Goodsir then instructed the Fairfax journalists to “drop everything and start digging into NSF” [278], which he described as a “slush fund” [403]. His initial view after the complaint in March was not to provide an apology, but to instead publish a “critical story” [267].

After the digging request, the journalist subsequently came up with this: “The best angle at present I think is that the Treasurer is granting privileged and secret access to a select group of business people in return for their donations to his fundraising machine, the North Sydney Forum, in the form of annual membership fees.” [292].

Goodsir replied that day [293]:

Fxyyxz!@ing (sic) brilliant!

….. Given what Andrew and I endured last week with Hockey, I want to have this nailed to the cross in more ways than one.

…. I have long dreamed (well, actually only since last Friday), of a headline that screams: Sloppy Joe!

I think we are not far off, but perhaps even more serious than that.”

 Then later [296]:

I will be back on Mon 28 and want to be in a spot to launch our dirt on Hockey then.

This one ain’t over yet!

Against that background, His Honour held that Fairfax’s conduct in publishing the articles was not reasonable [332], [357], and that Fairfax were actuated by malice in publishing the articles. Any defence of qualified privilege would fail.

At the end of day then, the articles were held not to be defamatory, but the placards would have been read by many people who did not read the articles ($120,000 damages) and the Tweets would have been read by many people who did not download the articles ($80,000 damages). Sigh of relief from the Hockey camp, his chances of becoming Prime Minister remain intact.

But this may not be the end. Regardless of whoever won, the winds of appeal have always circled around this case. So while the ball is in Fairfax’s court, there may still be risks that if it appeals, it could end up worse for it. The risk being that the Full Federal Court might overrule Justice White’s findings that the actual articles were not defamatory. There is also a reasonable chance that the findings of malice might remain undisturbed, being findings of fact. So then it would all come down to the meaning of the articles, the placards and the Tweets. If the Full Federal Court found that the articles were also defamatory, it would only increase the damages.

But it looks like the real problems for Fairfax are the placards and the Tweets. People would have walked the streets of Sydney and seen those placards without ever opening the newspaper. 280,000 people would have received the Tweets and only 789 of them read the full article that was hyperlinked. On appeal, Fairfax would have to have another go at explaining away the discrete headline “Treasurer for Sale” to the Full Federal Court. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Posted in Damages, Defamatory meaning, government and political matter, News, Qualified privilege, Trial, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Crushed Rock damages ruled too soft on appeal: Jeffrey & Curnow v Giles [2015] VSCA 70

The plaintiffs

The plaintiffs

Jeffrey and Curnow were defamed by statements made by Virginia Giles on a website in 2011. The plaintiffs were directors of a company, Casacir Pty Ltd, which operates a quarry in the south of Victoria. The defendant’s company owned the neighbouring property and the defendant planned to retire there. So when the plaintiff applied for a permit to use the land as a quarry, the defendant objected and there was a hearing at VCAT about that. The defendant lost and the quarry was allowed.

After the VCAT hearings, the defendant created a website: That website contained a number of statements which the plaintiffs claimed were defamatory of them, including statements that were said to carry the following meanings:

  • Jeffrey provided inaccurate, fictional and/or deceptive information at community meetings about the quarry;
  • Jeffrey deliberately gave false evidence under oath at VCAT; and
  • Curnow also effectively gave false evidence before VCAT.

The plaintiffs sued in defamation. In 2013, a trial was held in the Victorian Supreme Court before His Honour Justice Pagone and the plaintiffs virtually won everything. The trial judge accepted that the statements conveyed the meanings that Jeffrey and Curnow had deliberately given false evidence under oath before VCAT, and that Jeffrey would apply the orders of the Tribunal only as it pleased him to interpret them. The trial judge then found that the plaintiffs were entitled to consolation, reparation and vindication for the injury caused to their good reputations by the defendant’s defamatory conduct.

The plaintiffs’ evidence at trial were about the impact of the defamatory words within the quarry and road stabilization industries, and the grapevine effect of those words.

But the trial judge held that a lot of the evidence did not distinguish between the impact on the plaintiffs of the defamatory words and the impact caused by other conduct of the defendant, including other non-defamatory statements on the website. Thus the conclusion was that the defamatory words were only one of the causes of the injury to the plaintiffs. Ultimately, the trial judge awarded $12,000 damages to Jeffrey and $8,000 to Curnow. The plaintiffs appealed, claiming that the amounts were manifestly inadequate.

The Victoria Court of Appeal agreed. The damages were too low. It was concluded that the trial judge’s awards were unreasonable or plainly unjust.

While there was no real evidence that people who had visited the website had actually seen the defamatory words, the Court of Appeal still concluded that the awards were “derisory” and so low as to be manifestly inadequate. The Judges referred to other defamation cases concerning statements made on the internet that attracted damages of $225,000 and $200,000, and stated at [36]:

 “The view has been expressed that the `choice of the Internet as the medium for the publication of defamatory material may be an important factor in determining the extent of compensatory damages, not only because of `its interactive nature, its potential for being taken at face value, and its absolute and immediate worldwide ubiquity and accessibility., but also because of the possibility of retrieval by anyone who is computer literate:

 In the past, a defamatory article in a newspaper might have been quickly forgotten and accessible only to an intrepid researcher prepared to spend hours in a dusty archive or pouring over microfiche film. Today, the same article stored in an online archive may be able to be retrieved in a matter of seconds by anyone with a computer or other Internet-enabled device, an internet connection and a passing familiarity with the formulation of search engine inquiries.”

 The Court of Appeal also held that the trial judge erred because he implicitly proceeded on the basis that damages could only be awarded if the harm “has been solely caused by the defamatory statements”. That was a mistake. The statements need only be a cause, not the sole cause. Once that is established, then the plaintiffs were entitled to general damages that bore an appropriate and rational relationship to the harm that was sustained.

In all, the Court of Appeal held that while the plaintiffs were not entitled to aggravated damages, Jeffrey was entitled to $75,000 damages and Curnow was entitled to $65,000: a significant improvement for them.

So the Victorian Court of Appeal has latched on to the importance of internet publications. No longer will the internet be treated as less important or less harmful than publications in newspapers or on television.  The Court is moving with the times. Unfortunately for Australian law, when it comes to the internet, we are still miles behind Europe and America .…



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CSI Lismore: German backpacker’s efforts to prevent publication of book all in vain: Moran v Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd [2014] WASC 334

In early 2005, the plaintiff, a German National with a working visa in Australia, was travelling along the east coast of Australia in a campervan with his German girlfriend of 6 and a half years, Simone Strobel. By the time they got to Lismore, they had been joined by the plaintiff’s sister, Katrin and another friend from their village in Germany called Jens.

The plaintiff

The plaintiff

In February 2005, while the party of 4 camped at the caravan park in Lismore, Simone disappeared and her body was found 6 days later, 90 metres from the camp site under a pile leaves. How she died remains a mystery.

In 2007, a coronial inquest took place in relation to her death and one of the observers was Virginia Peters, who was to write a book about the case. The Coroner made the finding that Simone died on 12 February 2005, and that it was more likely than not, that she died from suffocation or asphyxia, which was caused by the action of a person unknown.

In 2014, Ms Peters (the second defendant) wrote a book, “Have you Seen Simone?”, and it was set to be published by the first defendant, both in physical hard copy and in electronic format. The plaintiff urgently ran off to the West Australian Supreme Court and sought an interlocutory injunction, seeking to prevent the publication of the book. He argued that the book carried an imputation that he was guilty of murdering Simone.

The defendants argued that the book carried an imputation that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the plaintiff was guilty of the murder, and they were going to argue that such an imputation was true. Kenneth Martin J accepted that there did exist facts which comprised reasonable grounds to suspect the plaintiff. Those included:

  • As at February 2005, while the plaintiff and Simone had been in a relationship for six and a half years, their diaries revealed that their relationship had deteriorated and in the days before the death, they were arguing;
  • There had been some verbally aggressive behavior from the plaintiff towards Simone on the evening she was last seen alive;
  • On the evening before Simone disappeared, the party of four had been observed to have drunk excessive amounts of alcohol and it was also suggested they had marijuana;
  • There was evidence of an argument involving Simone and the plaintiff at the caravan park before she walked off that evening;
  • The remaining party of 3 were the last people to see Simone alive before she disappeared; and
  • Simone’s body was found 6 days later, only 90 metres from the camping site and covered by palm branches.

While His Honour found that none of this was conclusive in establishing the plaintiff’s guilt, there was enough to create reasonable grounds for a suspicion of guilt.

The judge considered the authorities on injunctions in relation to potentially defamatory publications and concluded that the position in Australia was more flexible than that in England, where if a defendant stated that it was going to plead truth, it is virtually impossible to get such an injunction.

The question in this case was where the balance of convenience lay. A critical factor for Kenneth Martin J was that since 2005, there had been a large volume of material that had appeared on the internet canvassing the death of Simone and suggesting involvement by the plaintiff. The defendants produced 90 pages of this in evidence.

Also, in 2011, Channel Seven broadcast a show “Sunday Night” where it unequivocally asserted that the plaintiff killed Simone. That show remained accessible on the internet at the time of the hearing.

His Honour also acknowledged the public interest in freedom of speech, the fact that the plaintiff did not live in or have assets in WA (and so that effected the value of any undertaking as to damages that he could give) and what His Honour concluded were the respectable defences raised by the defendants. In the end: no injunction granted, the plaintiff’s proper remedy is in damages.

Whether there is a trial or not in 2015, remains to be seen. If not, a version of the case will probably appear on one of the 47 murder mystery shows in the USA. Surely, they will run out of ideas soon…

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Facebook and Twitter damages music to teacher’s ears: Mickle v Farley [2013] NSWDC 295

Orange is a large rural town in Western New South Wales and its High School became a site for a landmark defamation verdict. Yes, this case happened a while ago, but in our new age of social media, an interesting case and a cautionary tale.

The plaintiff

The plaintiff

The defendant, a 20 year old former student at Orange High School apparently held a grudge against the plaintiff, Mrs Mickle, a 58 year old music teacher, who was promoted to head of the music department when the defendant’s father, who held that position, became ill. The defendant did his Higher School Certificate at that school in 2011 and had never been taught by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff had given many years of devotion to students and teaching music generally. Her reputation for that went beyond the school and the Principal of Orange High School was aware of that reputation when the plaintiff was hired. So adored was Mrs Mickle that the students at the school wanted to re-name the school’s music centre after her.

In any event, the defendant believed that the plaintiff had something to do with his father leaving the school, even though there was no evidence to substantiate that belief. Nevertheless, acting on that belief, the defendant posted a number of defamatory comments about the plaintiff on Twitter and Facebook. The posts must have been seriously defamatory because they were not repeated in the judgment, a sign that the judge did not want to repeat the defamations, presumably out of deference to the plaintiff.

The effect on Mrs Mickle was devastating. She was particularly hurt by suggestions that she may have been responsible for the ill health of the defendant’s father, which suggestions had no substance at all.  Mrs Mickle was so devastated that she had to stop work and at the time of the trial, where the defendant did not appear, she had only returned to work on a limited basis.

Justice Elkaim heard evidence from the plaintiff and three others, then awarded compensatory damages to the plaintiff of $85,000 plus aggravated damages of $20,000. The aggravation was caused because the defendant originally filed a defence that asserted truth and had given an insincere apology.

The judgment rocked the social media world. It was the first substantial verdict in Australia from these social media publications, and a warning to students, teachers and Tweeters everywhere. The judge ended with this snippet for plaintiffs:

when defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread. They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication.”

No doubt that this will be quoted in defamation claims across the land in future. Particularly when plaintiffs face the problem of not knowing precisely how many people read the internet publications they complain of. Alas for Generation Y and their addiction to social media: perhaps Tweeting about teachers is not such a good idea….


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Defendants’ go all-in: Plaintiff calls their bluff and wins the $340,000 pot: Polias v Ryall & Ors [2014] NSWSC 1692

The plaintiff and four defendants were poker players used to playing high stakes games: hands worth thousands of dollars. In the middle of 2012, the plaintiff and the first defendant went to Las Vegas for a tournament and shared a room. Evidently for them, what happens in Vegas did not stay in Vegas.

The plaintiff

The plaintiff

Rumours circulated afterwards that the plaintiff was a thief and that he stole $2,000 of another player’s money. He was so concerned that he put up an explanation of his version of the events on Facebook. That explanation drew comments on the Facebook page and the defamation claim arose substantially from those comments, being allegations that still asserted that the plaintiff was a thief, arising from that event in Las Vegas, and from another event at The Star Casino, in Sydney.

What happened in Vegas was a matter of dispute, and became the core of this defamation trial. While rooming together, the security safe for the plaintiff and the first defendant was not working and they agreed that the plaintiff could hide his cash in a soft toy that had been bought by the first defendant. That soft toy, whatever it was, held a lot of money.

After around the first week, the first defendant ran out of money, and so the plaintiff lent him some money for gambling and living expenses. At the time, Mr Tommy Yi was also in Vegas at the tournament. He borrowed $2,000 from the plaintiff for his own gambling. A few days later, Yi gave $2,000 to the first defendant, to give it back to the plaintiff. The first defendant returned to the room and put the cash on the dressing table.

The next morning, the $2,000 was not on the dressing table. The parties did not remember what had happened to that money (the plaintiff accepted that maybe he moved the money into the soft toy) and a count was then taken of the money in the soft toy and there was an extra $2,000 in it. The allegation of theft related to that $2,000.

The first defendant believed that, since the plaintiff said he did not recollect whether he saw the $2,000, that this was an attempt by him to obtain the $2,000 again, knowing he had already received it. Seriously? A trial over that?

Anyhow, the trial related to 8 publications: 3 were oral statements made by the various defendants and 5 were Facebook comments. Essentially, each of the defendants claimed that the plaintiff is a thief, that he tried to steal money and that he bends the facts to deny that he is a thief. The only defences relied on by the defendants was truth.

The second event occurred at The Star Casino in Sydney. The case against nsw.scthe plaintiff there was that he short-changed a player who had just won a big pot against him, by getting change from the dealer at the time and in the confusion, only handing over half of what he owed.

The problems for the defendants were these:

  • The mistake was pointed out and the plaintiff immediately paid over the right amount;
  • the winner of the pot did not complain; and
  • in poker, apparently this happens all of the time.

The judge accepted that this was a mistake by the plaintiff and the allegation that the plaintiff tried to steal this money was comprehensively rejected.

In assessing the witnesses’ credibility, the defendants did not do well. Statements such as “deliberately prevaricating, dissembling and lying… his answers were inaccurate or untruthful” [34] are undoubtedly formidable skills at a poker table, but in a defamation trial… not so much.

The defences of truth were not made out and the plaintiff won big.

Even though the evidence was that the number of people who read the Facebook comments were confined, they caused great hurt and distress to the plaintiff. He had to see a psychologist, he became depressed and upset. He was defamed within the poker playing community and the judge also relied on the grapevine effect when calculating the damages.

The conduct of the defendants, including their attitude at trial, their failure to apologise and the fact that the Facebook posts remained online, also entitled the plaintiff to aggravated damages. While the judge did not apportion what of the damages were for aggravation, in total, the plaintiff won:

  • $125,000 against the first defendant for two Facebook posts;
  • $130,000 against the second defendant for three Facebook posts and an oral statement;
  • $50,000 against the third defendant for an oral statement to a small number of people; and
  • $35,000 against the fourth defendant for an oral statement to a small number of people.

Also, the plaintiff was granted an injunction preventing the defendants from continuing to publish the imputations complained of.

So as for the plaintiff and his sorte into litigation, quite simply, now would be the best time to cash out…

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Google’s dream comes true: plaintiff fails because trial would cost too much to run: Bleyer v Google Inc [2014] NSWSC 897

Roland Bleyer alleged that Google Inc published seven items about him, three in the form of search results and others in relation to articles that those search results hyperlinked to. For instance, the first matter that Bleyer sued on said this:

 “The State of California v Roland Frank Bleyer: Felony Complaint for…


Felony Complaint for Arrest Warrant in The State of California v Roland Frank Bleyer, aka Roland Husner, at Beverly Hills Municipal Court, Los Angeles…

The Defendant (again)

The Defendant (again)

Bleyer pleaded that three people read the search results, two of which occurred before Google was notified of his claim that those search results were defamatory of him. He then pleaded the usual: “Further particulars will be provided after discovery and interrogatories.”

Google brought on an application to dismiss the proceedings or have them permanently stayed. It argued that:

  1. There was an obvious and substantial disproportion between the cost of the exercise and the conceivable vindication for the plaintiff, and accordingly, the Court should apply the proportionality principle applied in the UK;
  2. Google was not a publisher of the search results or alternatively had the defence of innocent dissemination; and
  3. A judgment in Mr Bleyer’s favour would be unenforceable in the USA.

Most of the argument at the application was on whether an English Court of Appeal decision, Jameel, where a defamation claim was stayed as an abuse of process, was applicable in the NSW Supreme Court. This was based largely on the fact that the plaintiff had pleaded that only three people had read the publications complained of.

The plaintiff argued that he might find that further people had read it, once discovery and interrogatories were completed.  This was crucial, but this was rejected by Her Honour Justice Macallum.

Her Honour found that proportionality was an important aspect of justice and that the claim should be limited to what was pleaded by the plaintiff and not any speculation about who else might have read the results. Harsh. However, Her Honour did state that that it was open for a plaintiff to plead additional facts, matters and circumstances from which it could be inferred that there was broader publication, such as the popularity of the website, the public profile of the plaintiff and any other fact pointing to the conclusion that the web page would have been downloaded by a broader range of people.

As for the proportionality principle, Her Honour broke new ground in terms of Australian defamation law. She concluded that considerations of proportionality  between the value or utility of the remedy sought and the resources required to prosecute its determination may in some instances warrant the conclusion that such a remedy should not be allowed to be pursued [39], [56].

Her Honour considered the NSW Civil Procedure Act and concluded that there would be cases where the disproportion is so vast as to warrant the stay or dismissal of proceedings [57], [62]. Although such cases would be rare, this was such a case. The factors Her Honour relied on were: the fact that 2 out of 3 publications were before Google was notified of their existence, and so Google had a complete defence to those (the defence of innocent dissemination), the fact that the case would involve complicated issues of law and fact and also that, if the plaintiff won, the judgment would not be enforceable in the USA.

In terms of whether Google was a publisher of the search results, Her Honour preferred English authority which held that it was not, at least prior to notification, as opposed to the rulings of His Honour Justice Beach in Trkulja in November 2012 [77]. Another win for Google. However, the UK Court of Appeal had concluded that the situation was different for circumstances where Google had been notified of the publication. Another argument for another day.

Overall, a harsh decision. How is a plaintiff supposed to know how many people read the search engine results? If the plaintiff were to attend a job interview, and searches were conducted of his name, no doubt that these search results would appear. So the decision makes things difficult for plaintiffs.

Clearly, this was a massive win for Google. No doubt that since Trkulja, when it was ordered to pay damages of $200,000 (and did pay it), Google Inc has changed its approach to litigation in Australia. Now it argues that , being an American entity, it need not pay any judgment. How this position sits with Google’s founders’ intentions of being a good corporate citizen is another matter…




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Mildura Water Corporation Appeal hosed down: Lower Murray Urban and Rural Water Corporation v Di Masi & Ors [2014] VSCA 104

The appellants

Two of the winning plaintiffs

In 2012, a jury in the Supreme Court of Victoria sat in Mildura, a small orange-picking town on the border of NSW, for 22 days (there were a further four days of legal argument) and heard a defamation case. At the end of it all, left with a list of pages of questions to answer, the jury found for the four plaintiffs, three of whom were awarded $70,000 and the other $85,000.

The defendant, who had turned down an offer of compromise where the plaintiffs said that they would accept $20,000 (in hindsight: not a good call), appealed.

What happened was this:

  • In August 2008, the Minister for Water at the time, made a decision to appoint the appellant to take over the operations of the First Mildura Irrigation Trust (FMIT);
  • The plaintiffs were on the board of the FMIT at the time
  • In September 2008, the Minister wrote a letter and addressed it to all of the former customers of the FMIT about this decision. The jury found that the letter carried the following defamatory imputations:
  1. That the plaintiffs broke the law by investing $2.2 million of Victorian Government money without Treasury approval;
  2. That the plaintiffs acted irresponsibly and outside the law by investing money loaned from the Victorian Government in the United States Sub-Prime Mortgage market;
  3. That the plaintiffs approved secret, last minute adjustments to senior management contracts in the event of the First Mildura Irrigation Trust being taken over.
  • In September 2008, the managing director of the appellant uploaded the letter onto the appellant’s website.
  • The plaintiffs argued that the letter was defamatory of them and sued the appellant.

At trial, the appellant ran several defences, including that the letter written by the Minister was “issued” by the government and was therefore a public document, within the meaning of section 28 of the Defamation Act. The trial judge rejected this argument and this was one of the main aspects of the appeal.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s findings in virtually all respects. It agreed that the letter was not “issued”, because it was only sent to former customers of FMIT, it was not of a genuinely official nature and it was not published to the public. Therefore, that s.28 defence failed: [70].

The appellant also argued that the trial judge was wrong when he rejected the section 30 Defamation Act defence, namely that the recipients had an interest in the subject matter and the appellant had a duty to publish. That was rejected because it was held that the appellant’s conduct was not reasonable, which is required by section 30(3) of the Act.

To answer that question, it was held that the Court could look at the subjective intent or purpose of the publisher [87]. The appellant had acted unreasonably because at the time of uploading the letter, the appellant had information that showed that, contrary to the letter, the board had not invested the money borrowed from the government in the United States, and the appellant did nothing to put the plaintiffs’ side of the story.

The appellant also complained about the amount of damages, since the trial judge had relied on the “grapevine effect” in a rural community. This too was rejected.

So the trial judge was validated in virtually all respects and the appeal was dismissed. Since then, defamation judges in Victoria have always been cautious about the barristers’ trial length estimates. Fortunately for Mildura, the case was not remitted back to determine a question or two, and presuming no leave was sought to appeal to the High Court, the case has now come to an end.

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