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Defamatory Facebook Post Leads to $65,000 Damage Award

Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, New Westminster Registry, ordering a Defendant to pay $65,000 in damages following a defamatory Facebook post.

In today’s case (Pritchard v. Van Nes) were neighbors who had “tensions” between them.   The Defendant published some troubling posts on Facebook that “in their natural meaning and by innuendo, bore the meaning that the plaintiff was a paedophile“.   The court found that these suggestions “were completely false and unjustified“.

The Plaintiff successfully sued the Defendant for defamation.  In awarding $50,000 in general damages and a further $15,000 in punitive damages Mr. Justice Saunders provided the following reasons:

[122]     The seriousness of Ms. Van Nes’ defamatory Facebook post, her replies, and the comments of her “friends” cannot be overstated. An accusation of paedophilic 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. The identity of Mr. Pritchard is especially relevant in this case. Through his engagement in extra-curricular activities he occupies a position of trust as a music teacher for children. Through hard work and dedication to his students, he had earned the community’s respect and admiration, as clearly established on the evidence. I find that he now faces the challenge of repairing the damage Ms. Van Nes has caused, if that is even possible at this point.

[123]     The vehicle through which Ms. Van Nes chose to publicize her defamatory accusations provided the court with further evidence of the damage to his reputation; that there were individual replies from 37 of Ms. Van Nes’ Facebook “friends” within less than 24 hours clearly documents the quick degradation of Mr. Pritchard’s estimation in the eyes of others..

[131]     I do not find that the claim of malice has been made out. Taken in its entirety, the evidence of the defendant’s actions – her self-centred, unneighbourly conduct; her failure to respond reasonably to the plaintiff’s various complaints, particularly regarding her dog; and her thoughtless Facebook posts – point just as much to narcissism as to animosity. Her belief that the decorative mirror hung on the exterior of the plaintiff’s house was some sort of surveillance device was simply ridiculous, speaking, to be blunt, more of stupidity than malice.

[132]     The defendant, as I see it, appears to have thoughtlessly taken to a social medium to give vent to her feelings, making reckless statements without any regard to the consequences. She certainly ought to have anticipated the potential impact of her remarks; whether she actually did so has not been proven.

[133]     The defendant’s subsequent actions bear none of the indicia of malice discussed at para. 191 of Hill: she removed the posts relatively quickly, probably when the gravity of the situation became apparent to her through the police presence at the plaintiff’s home; she did not seek to publicize the proceedings, giving rise to further dissemination of the defamation; she did not file a defence.

[134]     Aggravated damages are not in order, but given the seriousness of the allegations and the extent of the harm suffered, a significant award of general damages is. I award the plaintiff general damages for defamation of $50,000.

[135]     I further find this an appropriate case for an award of punitive damages, as a means of rebuking the plaintiff for her thoughtless, reckless behaviour. She acted without any consideration for the devastating nature of her remarks. With regard to the factors enunciated by the Supreme Court of Canada in Whiten v. Pilot Insurance Co., 2002 SCC 18, at para. 13, a punitive damages award must be proportionate to the defendant’s blameworthiness, which in this case is high; the defendant’s vulnerability, which is also high; the harm suffered by the plaintiff, which has been considerable; and the need to publically denounce the defendant and thus bring to the notice of the public the dangers of ill-considered remarks being made in social media and the serious consequences of such conduct.

[136]     I award the plaintiff additional punitive damages of $15,000.

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