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Social Media and Slander

If someone makes false and defamatory Facebook posts about you, can they be forced to pay you damages?

In this week’s case of Pritchard v. Van Nes (2016 BCSC 686), Ms. Van Ness was the neighbour of the plaintiff (Mr. Prichard). There were tensions between the neighbours since 2011, when Ms. Van Ness and her husband installed a large two-level waterfall fish pond along the rear of their property which ran day and night.  There were also reports of loud parties at the Van Ness household, and a tendency to park in front of and blocking the Prichard driveway.

The tension came to a head on June 9, 2014, with Ms. Van Ness making a number of Facebook postings about Mr. Prichard, calling him a “nutter and a creep, and accusing him of using a system of cameras and mirrors to keep her backyard, and her children, under 24-hour surveillance”. Her accusations were paedophilic in nature, and the posts were widely commented on in a further defamatory manner. It is essential to note that the allegations about his behavior and attacks on his character were found to be false and unjustified.

Ms. Van Ness had more than 2,000 Facebook “friends”, any of whom were exposed to her postings. Furthermore, she had her privacy settings on “public” allowing an even broader scope circulation of her posts. Mr. Prichard was a father and a teacher and the Facebook posts were forwarded to the principal of the school where he taught. Mr. Prichard sued Ms. Van Ness for nuisance and defamation. This summary is limited to the claim for defamation. Mr. Justice Sunders awarded $50,000 in general damages and a further $15,000 in punitive damages and provided the following reasons regarding the allegations of defamation:

[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.

[124]      To say the least, recovering from false allegations of impropriety against children will not be easy for Mr. Pritchard. It is to be hoped that these reasons for judgment will assist. But the taint of suspicion is not easily expunged, and the reality is that regaining the stellar reputation he once enjoyed will not be quick or easy. In Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 1130, the pervading nature of defamation and its long term impact was succinctly stated:

[166] …A defamatory statement can seep into the crevasses of the subconscious and lurk there ever ready to spring forth and spread its cancerous evil. The unfortunate impression left by a libel may last a lifetime. Seldom does the defamed person have the opportunity of replying and correcting the record in a manner that will truly remedy the situation.

[125]     I have no difficulty in concluding that the defendant’s conduct had a devastating impact on the plaintiff, which continues to this day and will continue into the future. That factor, in and of itself, merits a significant damages award.

[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.