Damages for Violations of Privacy in BC

(Update: The below decision was upheld by the BC Court of Appeal in December, 2011)

As I’ve previously written, the BC Privacy Act allows individuals to sue where their privacy is violated “wilfully and without a claim of right” by another person.  This powerful law permits such lawsuits to succeed even where a Plaintiff cannot prove actual damages.
Despite the strength of the BC Privacy Act, relatively few reported decisions have been released applying this law in the years that it has been on the books.  Useful reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, New Westminster Registry, applying this law in combination with a claim for damages for defamation.
In today’s case (Nesbitt v. Neufeld) the Plaintiff and Defendant were involved in “protracted family litigation” During the course of that litigation one of the parties “resorted to out-of-court publications that are plainly private to the litigants“.  The reasons for judgement are worth reviewing in full for the details but these apparently included “private communications…released to third parties and made available to the public (including)…a YouTube video…a website…a Facebook Page…(and) a letter to the Ministry of Child and Family Development”
The victim sued arguing she was defamed and further that her privacy rights were unreasonably violated.  Mr. Justice Crawford agreed and awarded the Plaintiff $40,000 in damages.   In reaching this award the Court provided the following reasons:

[89]         The B.C. Court of Appeal in Davis v. McArthur (1970), 17 D.L.R. (3d) 760, [1970] B.C.J. No. 664 (QL) (C.A.), said this in the course of its judgment at para. 9 of QL:

To constitute the tort [of violation of privacy] the violation must be committed “wilfully and without a claim of right”. The nature and degree of privacy to which the person is entitled in any situation or in relation to any matter is fully set out in s-s (2) [now ss. 1(2) and 1(3)] and, in my opinion, no useful purpose would be served in attempting to elaborate upon the words contained therein. Regard must be had to the provisions of the subsection as a whole. It is plain that whether there has been a violation of privacy of another must be decided on the particular facts of each case. As the learned Judge below said in his reasons for judgment [10 D.L.R. (3d) 250 at p. 255, 72 W.W.R. 69]: “It is necessary to consider all of the circumstances before determining ‘The nature and degree of privacy to which a person is entitled,’ s. 2(2) [now ss. 1(2) and 1(3)].

[90]         In Hollinsworth v. BCTV, a division of Westcom T.V. Group Ltd. (1999), 59 B.C.L.R. (3d) 121, 113 B.C.A.C. 304, the Court of Appeal defined the term “wilfully” to mean “an intention to do an act which the person doing the act knew or should have known would violate the privacy of another person” (at para. 29 of B.C.L.R.).

[91]         Dr. Nesbitt’s use of the private correspondence between Ms. Neufeld and Ms. X was a deliberate act that violated Ms. Neufeld’s privacy. The communications were extremely personal…

[96] Had Dr. Nesbitt restricted his communications within the confines of the family court litigation where he had counsel to advise him of the bounds of legitimate expression of his opinions, the issues before me in this proceeding might not have arisen. I say “might” because I note that certain publications of Dr. Nesbitt prompted an application to the family court that resulted in a consent order made on September 8, 2008 before Master Caldwell restraining Dr. Nesbitt from making further improper communications…

[102] The reality is that Dr. Nesbitt has taken his battle with Ms. Neufeld over custody and access far outside the ordinary confines of the family court litigation. Even worse his lack of appreciation for the proper boundaries of communication of his opinions has spread to besmirch persons that are friends of Ms. Neufeld.

[103] Dr. Nesbitt disclosed matters private to the parties in a manner that defamed Ms. Neufeld; he is the publisher of the defamatory materials at issue.

[104] For breach of privacy and the defamation aspects of the defendant’s claim, I set that amount at $40,000.

[105] I only limit the defamation damages due to the fact that while it is plainly publication to the world in the sense the defamatory materials were put on the Internet, Ms. Neufeld indicated there has been little personal or professional backlash. Indeed, if I read between the lines, the communications to the Rotary Club, the Ministry and the Child’s doctor were treated with the disdain they deserved.

The Court went on to award the victim ‘special costs’ in order to rebuke the other parties ‘reprehensible conduct‘.  The ease created by social media platforms in allowing individuals to quickly publish material to the Internet will likely make claims such as these more prevalent in the years to come.  With this, damage awards for privacy violations will hopefully be shaped into predictable ranges.

bc injury law, BC Privacy Act, Defamation, facebook, Libel, Mr. Justice Crawford, Nesbitt v. Neufeld, Slander, Social Media, YouTube

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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