Defamatory Facebook Posts Result in $65,000 Damage Award
When disputes arise regarding a loved one’s Estate tensions often mount, but don’t go venting your frustrations on social media!
In recent decision of the British Columbia Supreme Court, Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686, the Honourable Justice Saunders found the defendant liable to pay $50,000 in damages for defamation, plus another $15,000 in punitive damages as a result of posts made to Facebook.
The plaintiff was a school teacher. He and his family became neighbours of the defendant in 2008. Tensions between the plaintiff and defendant began in 2011, when the defendant installed a large fish pond along the rear of her property. The structure was on two levels, and had water flowing over two waterfalls. The plaintiff began complaining to the defendant about the noise created by waterfalls, and their relationship began to deteriorate. In the years that followed, there were numerous disagreements concerning the defendant’s dog defecating on the plaintiff’s property, parking issues, trespassing and loud parties.
The defendant chose to vent on Facebook in a manner that was considered defamatory. She identified the plaintiff by his first name, his occupation, the school and the school district in which he worked, and by his position as her next-door neighbour.
The defendant’s friends commented, liked and shared the post with others. One friend even went so far as to send the plaintiff’s employer an email advising them of the allegations. As the defendant had over 2000 friends on Facebook, the posts quickly went “viral”.
This had a devastating impact on the plaintiff’s career as a teacher.
Ultimately, Justice Saunders found the defendant liable for not only the defamatory comments she had personally posted to Facebook, but also the republication of her comments by her Facebook friends (including by way of email) and any new defamatory comments made by her Facebook friends.
Justice Saunders held that the republication through Facebook “was the natural and probable result of the defendant having posted her defamatory remarks” (para 84). The defendant had “impliedly authorized the republication”, and ought to have known that republication was not limited to social media only. Accordingly, the defendant was liable for republication through other mediums, including email (para 87).
Given the seriousness of the allegations and the extent of the harm suffered, Justice Sunders awarded the plaintiff the plaintiff general damages for defamation of $50,000 and punitive damages of $15,000. He also found the plaintiff was entitled to his costs.
Liability for third-party defamatory comments on one’s personal account, whether on Facebook or another social media platform, is still an emerging legal issue in Canadian law. The prevalence of social media renders this decision applicable to practically every area of the law. It will be interesting to see how it is applied in the future.
Thank you for reading,
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