Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The Superior Court of Justice in Ontario held that the spoken words against the plaintiff, alleging him of dishonesty and secret dealings were defamatory because in their ordinary meaning, the words may tend to undermine the plaintiff’s reputation through the eyes of a reasonable person. The Court also ruled a statement of fact does not give rise to the defense of fair comment and that the defense of justification or truth does not apply when the defendant’s defamatory comments are shown to be wholly false.
The Plaintiff was a contractor for the Sauble Beach and South Bruce Peninsula Chambers of Commerce in Ontario, Canada to promote and coordinate their special events.
The Defendant operated a restaurant directly across the place where the Plaintiff’s special events were taking place, which allegedly had an adverse impact on his business.
In June 2011, during an annual meeting of the Sauble Beach Chamber of Commerce, the Defendant publicly alleged that the Plaintiff was dishonest and that he had made secret dealings with several sponsors.
Subsequently, the Plaintiff discontinued his work at the Chamber’s request.
The Plaintiff filed a defamation lawsuit in the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario against the Defendant.
Judge Conlan rendered the Court’s judgement.
First, the Court considered whether the Plaintiff satisfied the prima facie case for defamation, which requires him to show “(i) that the impugned words were defamatory; (ii) that the words in fact referred to him, and (iii) that the words were published (communicated to at least one other person).” [para. 35] Once the prima facie case is established, the defendant may raise applicable defenses in order to avoid liability.
Under the relevant judicial precedent, a defamatory statement is one that “may tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of reasonable persons or to expose the plaintiff to hatred, contempt or ridicule.” [para. 45] According to the Court, in order to determine whether a statement qualifies as defamatory, its ordinary meaning must be evaluated. In circumstances where there is ambiguity, “the question boils down to what reasonable persons would have taken from what the defendant said.” [para. 47]
As applied to the case in hand, the Court determined that the Defendant’s spoken allegations of dishonesty and secret dealings against the Plaintiff were indeed defamatory because the words, taken at their ordinary meaning, tend to undermine the Plaintiff’s reputation through the eyes of a reasonable person.
Next, the Court addressed whether there were any viable defenses available to the Defendant. The Court first outlined that the jurisprudence of common defenses to defamation, which includes the defense of justification or truth, defense of fair comment, and the defense of qualified privilege. According to the Court, since defamatory words are presumed false under the law of defamation, the defendant has the burden to prove that substantial part of his statement was true.
Under the defense of fair comment, the defendant must show that his opinion was based on facts truly stated and he had an honest belief in the truth of the comment. The defense of qualified privilege applies when a defamatory statement is made through the exercise of a duty, or for the purpose of pursuing or protecting some interest, provided that the statement is made to a person with corresponding interest.
The Court dismissed the defense of justification in this case as it found the statements as “wholly untrue.” It also ruled that the defense of fair comment was not available to the Defendant because he made defamatory statements of fact, not of his opinion. It reasoned that the Defendant’s comments “were not qualified by “perhaps” or “maybe” or “I think” or “I believe” or “I suspect” or anything like that.” [para. 80]
The Court also found that the Defendant was not entitled to the defense because the he was reckless in making him comments, which were not reasonably appropriate to the occasion.
Based on the foregoing reasons, the Court found the Defendant liable for making defamatory comments against the Plaintiff.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case illustrates a mixed outcome. There is an important interest in punishing those who commit the tort of defamation. But there is also an important interest in allowing the public to express their opinion.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
“The defence of qualified privilege applies if the statement or publication is made in the exercise of a duty, or for the purpose of pursuing or protecting some interest, provided that it is made to a person who has some corresponding interest. In order to defeat the defence the [plaintiff] must prove malice…”
“Justification, or truth, is a defence to a defamation action. However, as defamatory words are presumed to be false, the defendant bears the onus of proving the substantial truth of the sting, or the main thrust, of the defamatory words.”
“What is defamatory may be determined from the ordinary meaning of the published [or in the case of slander, spoken] words themselves or from the surrounding circumstances.”
Defamatory statements are defined as “whether the words complained of, in their natural and ordinary meaning, may tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of reasonable persons or to expose the plaintiff to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”
“The tort of defamation consists of the two torts of libel and slander. The law of libel and slander protects an individual’s reputation.”
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Since the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario is a court of first instance, its decision establishes a persuasive precedent for higher courts.
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