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Online Defamation

March 19, 2020

Year-long smear campaign over multiple websites results in large damage award

The Supreme Court of British Columbia ordered a very high damage award for online defamation with its decision in Rook v Halcrow.

The plaintiff, Brandon Rook, had been director and CEO of a mining company, a founder of his own company, and provided business consultancy services. He had entered into a romantic relationship with the defendant for less than a month in 2015, and then again for about six months in 2016: on both occasions Rook was the one to end the relationship. The relationship ended in July 2016: from August 2016 until August 2017, scores of posts about the accused were made on many websites. These claims included that he was an alcoholic, that he was a business failure and a fraud, that he had STDs, and that over a period of many years he did not disclose these STDs to sexual partners and had spread them (which the trial judge noted amounted to an accusation that Rook had committed sexual assault), that he was heartless and uncaring, that he failed to pay child support, and others.

Among other places, these posts had been made on Instagram, giving Rook’s name and attaching his image, with the hashtag #brandonrook as well as others like #loserlife, #drunk, #noheart, #notnicepeople, #whatswrongwithpeople, and #stdspreader. In addition, there were multiple postings about the plaintiff on sites such as thedirty.com, stdcarriersdatabase.com, stdregistry.com, liarscheatersrus.org, reportmyex.com, cheatersandbastards.com, www.badbizreport.com, deadbeatregistry.com, and others.

The defendant’s only defence was that she was not the one who had made the posts, but the trial judge noted that the evidence was “clear and compelling” that she had done so. First, there was expert evidence that the IP address from which the defendant sent emails to the plaintiff was also the IP address used to set up the Instagram account from which the posts in question were made. The defendant suggested that others could have used her WiFi while at her house to set up the account, but the judge found that explanation not credible. In particular this was because: the defendant frequently texted the plaintiff about taking down the posts and threatening to put them up again or to create further posts; the phraseology in the posts was remarkably similar to that of the defendant in her texts, and; there was no evidence of anyone else with a motive to make the posts or the knowledge of the personal details which were mentioned.

The judge found it unambiguous that the posts were defamatory, and noted that each post was a separate cause of action on its own. Further, although proof that the posts had come to the attention of a third party was not necessary if it could be inferred, in this case there was such proof. First, there was evidence from the accused’s ex-wife that she had read them. Beyond that, it was apparent from the sites that some individual posts had been viewed thousands of times, and many had comments on them.

The judge noted that defamatory statements were presumed to be damaging, but that in addition aggravated damages could be awarded where actual malice was shown, as it was in this case. The plaintiff was therefore awarded $175,000 in general damages as well as $25,000 for aggravated damages. In addition, the plaintiff had engaged the services of reputation consultants to assist him in having the defamatory postings removed, and so he was also awarded US$29,870 as special damages for the cost of that service. In addition he was given an injunction restraining the defendant and others with knowledge of the order, wherever they were located in the world, from publishing any of the comments contained in the attached schedule.

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