A string of recent, high profile defamation decisions, for example those involving actors Rebel Wilson and Geoffrey Rush, have shown that Courts are prepared to award significant damages to successful complainants. But it is important to remember that defamation disputes are not exclusively between celebrities and the print and television media.  Disputes, particularly those within community groups, churches, sporting or industry bodies, can and often do play out on social media and can give rise to defamation actions.

Gayed v Abdelmak [2020] VCC 1814, a recent decision of the County Court of Victoria, illustrates that defamatory publications via social media platforms can have enormous consequences.

What you need to know

The plaintiff  borrowed $30,000 from an associate within his Church congregation, and was awarded more than $200,000 (including costs) after the associate accused him on social media of being a “scammer”, “liar” and a thief” when his family's café business failed and he was unable to pay back the loan.

The “grapevine effect” within the Church congregation and the damage to the plaintiff's reputation caused by the posts, which the Court found imputed that the plaintiff was dishonest, were serious factors and justified the significant award of damages.

The Facts

  • The plaintiff and the defendant were each members of a particular Church congregation.
  • The plaintiff's son had purchased a café business, which subsequently encountered financial difficulty.
  • The defendant, who had previously supported members of the congregation in need, loaned the plaintiff $30,000 to assist with the café business.
  • Despite the loan, the café business ultimately ceased to operate and entered liquidation and the plaintiff failed to repay the defendant.
  • The defendant, using his wife's Facebook account, posted a series of Facebook posts in which he:
    • made allegations that the plaintiff had deceived him and was asking the entire congregation at their Church for money;
    • stated that the plaintiff (and his family) were “thieves” that the Court needed to deal with;
    • called the plaintiff a “scammer”, “thief”, “liar” and “a disgrace” and stated that “he owes everyone money”; and
    • implied that the Church's priest was aware of his dealings with the plaintiff and the fact that the plaintiff had been asking the congregation for money.
    • (the Posts)
  • The Court found (following contested evidence) that the Posts:
    • were marked ‘Public';
    • remained visible for approximately 2 months from their publication (and were ‘liked' and ‘shared' by at least 20 persons);
    • were “intentionally directed to the Church congregation”;
    • had led to the plaintiff feeling he could no longer attend Church (and from which he absented himself for approximately 1 year); and
    • had had a detrimental effect on not only the plaintiff, but also his family.
  • While there was no dispute that the plaintiff owed the defendant money, and had not paid it back, the plaintiff sued the defendant in defamation seeking damages, focussing on imputations of dishonesty alleged to have been conveyed in the Posts.
  • The defendant initially sought to defend the case brought by the plaintiff on the grounds that the imputations arising from the Posts were true or were an honest opinion.
  • The defences were subsequently abandoned by the defendant and the trial proceeded as an assessment of damages only.
  • While the defendant had offered an apology, the apology offered was not a “full and unqualified withdrawal of the defamatory comments”.

The Decision

His Honour Judge Smith (at [14]) clarified that there are three purposes for awarding damages in a defamation claim:

  • Consolation for the personal distress and hurt caused to the plaintiff by the publications;
  • Reparation for the harm done to the plaintiff's personal and (if relevant) business reputation; and
  • Vindication of the plaintiff's reputation – the amount awarded is the minimum necessary to signal that vindication to the public.

His Honour (at [72]) found that the “defamatory sting” of the Posts was plainly serious and stated:

I am satisfied in a relatively tight religious and cultural community such as the [particular Church] community of Melbourne, the “grapevine” effect arising from the publications would have been substantial.  Members of the community who had read the posts or had them brought to their attention were high likely to discuss them or bring them to the attention of other members.

In relation to the fact that the plaintiff was in fact indebted to the defendant, His Honour at [76] held:

It may be correct that [the plaintiff] owes money to the defendant and possibly, to others.  But that is not to say that he is a thief or is dishonest.  Many people, for a variety of reasons, encounter hard times financially; many companies are wound up for a variety of reasons; many persons are unable to pay debts when due; many require financial assistance from time to time.  These are concepts which are not indicative of dishonesty… 

The plaintiff was ultimately awarded damages in the sum of $120,000, together with interest of $8,473.35 and costs fixed at $85,000.  Importantly, the plaintiff did not seek an award of aggravated damages which may have increased the award of damages.

The case serves as a useful reminder that users of social media need to be aware of the potential consequences of posting comments which may offend or aggrieve one of more individuals.  Defamation claims arise not only in the national media and at the “big end of town”, where they are seen, perhaps, as a cost of doing business, but can also significantly affect smaller communities with more modest levels of publication of information.   Relative to the parties' financial resources, community and grassroots defamations can have much higher stakes for the parties involved.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.