Top 10 Defamation Cases of 2017, a selection – Suneet Sharma

This is my selection of the most legally and factually interesting defamation cases from England, Australia and the United States from 2017. This post was originally produced for the INFORRM website and is reproduced on TPP for reference.

  1. Wilson v Bauer Media Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 521 (Australia)

Australian-born actress Rebel Wilson brought an action against Bauer Media, the publishers of the Women’s Day magazine. The complaint concerned articles published by Women’s Day claiming Wilson lied about her name, age, upbringing and life events.

Wilson made a claim for general and special damages for loss of business opportunities from May 2015 until the end of 2016. Ruling in her favour Dixon J awarded Wilson $650,000 general damages and $3,917,472 special damages, in doing so noting the presence of multiple aggravating factors including substantial loss of business.

The Guardian covered the case, as did the BBCIndependent and Telegraph.

  1. Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd [2017] EWCA Civ 1334 (England)

C, a French national working in the UAE, brought five separate actions against three publishers in respect of a series of articles published between 20 January and 10 February 2014.

The articles recounted events in the UAE, including proceedings against C’s British ex-wife for allegedly ‘kidnapping’ their son. The articles also contained allegations made against C by his ex-wife, including of domestic abuse. There was a trial of preliminary issues including meaning and reference for certain articles, ‘serious harm’ and Jameel abuse.

The judgment clarified the application of s.1(1) Defamation Act 2013, the serious harm test, to defamation cases. Claimants’ had to prove “serious harm” to their reputation, a higher threshold than the previously applicable standard of “substantial harm”.

We have a case comment on the case from Tom Double which can be found here. 5RB had a case report as does RPC.

  1. Elias, IV, Hadford and Folwer v. Rolling Stone Case 16-2465 (United States)

The ongoing dispute caused by the 2014 Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” and subsequent podcast, which alleged that a student was raped by members of the University of Phi Kappa Psi, came to a head this year. The case concerns three members of the fraternity who brought defamation lawsuits against the magazine, separate from the previous cases bought by the fraternity itself and an associate dean of the University.

In September 2017 the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Courts’ dismissal of the case regarding Plaintiff’s Elias and Fowler, holding that information provided in the article was sufficient to identify them personally.

Shortly after the ruling the case was settled in the sum of $1.65m, drawing coverage from the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter. All three lawsuits originating from the article have now been settled.

  1. ABC News v Beef Products Inc, “The Pink Slime case” (United States)

ABC News and Beef Products Inc. reached a $177m million settlement after the news outlets report in 2012 that the food production company made low-cost processed beef that equated to “pink slime”. In a defamation lawsuit the food producer sought $1.9billion damages, later settling with the parent company of ABC, Disney.

The New York Times and Business Insider estimated that as much as $5.7bn in damages could have been awarded to the meat producer in the event of a successful claim.

  1. Rayney v The State of Western Australia [No9] [2017] WASC 367 (Australia)

Barrister Lloyd Rayney’s libel case against the State of Western Australia for comments imputing him to have killed his wife, made in the course of an investigation into her death, concluded in December 2017.

The case covered significant legal issues including the application of the qualified privilege defence to statements made by the police in the course of an investigation and instances which merit the removal of the statutory cap on damages for noneconomic loss. This is reflected in the total award of $2.62m damages received by Rayney resulting from litigation over the statements.

The case featured prominently in the media with the GuardianAustralianDaily Telegraph and Daily Mail.

  1. Melania Trump v Daily Mail (England)

Melania Trump filed a defamation action in the New York state commercial court and in the UK High Court against the Daily Mail over allegations that she previously worked as an escort. Ms. Trump claimed damages in the sum of $150m.

The Mail later retracted the statement, published an apology and settled the case for $3m. The case was subject to much media attention, being covered by the BBCthe GuardianIndependentand ABC News.

  1. Monroe v Hopkins[2017] EWHC 433 (QB) (England)

Defamation claims arising from social media platforms featured in 2017, the most prominent perhaps being that of food writer Jack Monroe against journalist Katie Hopkins.

The case concerned two tweets made by Hopkins in May 2015 which accused Monroe of desecrating a war memorial. Monroe was awarded £24,000 in a judgment handed down by Warby J in March 2017. Notably, damages awarded were exacerbated by the continual harm caused to Monroe’s reputation by the Tweets as well as injury to feelings caused by the defendants’ reprehensible behaviour throughout the matter.

The case affirmed the Courts approach to social media platforms, including the application of the reasonable reader construct to Twitter, innuendo inferable from Tweets and the Courts acceptance of an Appendix agreed by the parties on “How Twitter Works”.

The case was covered by Nathan Capone on Inforrm. The Guardian and Independent also covered the case.

  1. Independent Newspapers v. Ireland 28199/15  (European Court of Human Rights)

The European Court of Human Rights handed down judgment in this case in September 2017. The case involved a libel claim by Ms L., previously a consultant for the Environmental Department of the Irish Government, against the Evening Herald for a series of articles published throughout late 2004. The articles scrutinised the tendering of government contracts, alleged attendance of Ms L. to a UN Conference with Mr C. (the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government) and later made allegations of a relationship between Mr C. and Ms L.

The case considers the assessment of compensation in Irish defamation cases and the interaction of this process with Article 10 of the Convention. Whilst Ms L. was successful before a jury in the High Court the case was appealed to the Irish Supreme Court on grounds that the damages awarded at first instance, EUR 1,872,000, were excessive. The Supreme Court affirmed this, substituting the award for that of EUR 1,250,000. On application the ECJ found that the award constituted a disproportionate interference with the Evening Herald’s right to freedom of expression.

Ronan Ó Fathiagh provided a case comment on Inforrm. The case received comment from the Irish Times and the Independent.

  1. Chris Gayle v Fairfax Media (Australia)

International cricketer Chris Gayle succeeded in his defamation lawsuit against Fairfax Media, contesting articles published by the media outlet claiming that Gayle had exposed himself to a female masseuse in a changing room at Drummoyne Oval in 2015.

Fairfax advanced two defences of truth and qualified privilege, both which were rejected by the jury, who notably found malice on the part of Fairfax. Fairfax later issued a statement disputing that it had received a fair trial which was, uncommonly, criticised by presiding NSW Supreme Court Justice McCallum.

Inforrm reposted an analysis of the case by Graham Hyce. The case also received coverage from the GuardianMail Online and Herald Sun.

  1. Gill v Anagnost, Crews and Grenier (United States)

A libel action brought in the New Hampshire state court concerning the posting of defamatory statements on a billboard by mortgage broker Michael Gill. The billboard was owned by Gill’s company, Mortgage Specialists Inc, and publicised statements accusing the claimants of criminal acts.

In finding for the claimants a jury awarded a total of $247m in damages to the three businessmen. The cases was noted as being the highest award of damages in a defamation case in New Hampshire, the jury took into account the placement of the billboard next to a public highway and the extremely serious nature of the allegations which were made.

The case was covered by US News and Law 360.

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