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Ontario court adopts the “false light publicity” privacy tort

February 20, 2020

The final tort of the “four-tort catalogue” has been recognized in Ontario, and likely will be recognized in other common law provinces

In 2016, in the case of Jones v Tsige, the Ontario Court of Appeal imported into Canada the four American privacy torts as articulated by William L. Prosser in 1960. That list includes:

  1. Intrusion upon the plaintiff's seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs.
  2. Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff.
  3. Publicity which places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye.
  4. Appropriation, for the defendant's advantage, of the plaintiff's name or likeness.

The fourth cause of action, commercial appropriation of the plaintiff's image, was already alive and well in Canadian tort law. The Court in Jones applied the “intrusion upon seclusion” tort and subsequent cases have applied “public disclosure of private facts”, particularly in the context of the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.

In December 2019, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice explicitly recognized the “false light” privacy tort, confirming that the full set of Prosser’s torts exist in Ontario. In Yenovkian v. Gulian, Justice Kristjanson was dealing with an unpleasant family law case in which the husband had made wild accusations against his former spouse, particularly related to their two children.

The judge summarized the husband’s misconduct that was at issue:

[2] It is also about a father, Mr. Vem Yenovkian, who has engaged in years of cyberbullying of the mother, Ms. Sonia Gulian on websites, YouTube videos, online petitions and emails. It is about a father who videotapes court-ordered access visits with the children—both in-person and on Skype—and edits and posts those access visits and photographs of the children on the internet, with commentary. It is about a father who publicly posts on YouTube a video of his son cowering under a table while the father harangues him over Skype on a court-ordered access visit. It is about a father who posts videos of him describing his daughter, who suffers from a neurological disorder, as looking drugged, when she used to be “normal,” and posting that his daughter has a “broken” mind.

[3] Despite court orders prohibiting posting, the father continues his cyberbullying campaign abusing Ms. Gulian and her parents. He seeks to undermine the administration of justice through an online campaign to “unseat” a judge of this Honourable Court for rulings made, internet attacks on trial witnesses and the wife’s lawyer, and by flouting court orders and family law disclosure obligations.

The judge noted, with respect to the list of privacy torts:

[170] With these three torts all recognized in Ontario law, the remaining item in the “four-tort catalogue” of causes of action for invasion of privacy is the third, that is, publicity placing the plaintiff in a false light. I hold that this is the case in which this cause of action should be recognized. It is described in § 652E of the Restatement as follows:

 

Publicity Placing Person in False Light

One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if

  1. the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and
  2. the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.

The Court noted that the “false light” may often be defamatory per se, the essence of the tort is presenting the subject of the tort as “other than they are”:

[171] I adopt this statement of the elements of the tort. I also note the clarification in the Restatement’s commentary on this passage to the effect that, while the publicity giving rise to this cause of action will often be defamatory, defamation is not required. It is enough for the plaintiff to show that a reasonable person would find it highly offensive to be publicly misrepresented as they have been. The wrong is in publicly representing someone, not as worse than they are, but as other than they are. The value at stake is respect for a person’s privacy right to control the way they present themselves to the world.

The Court in this case did not follow the $20,000 “cap” on non-pecuniary damages set out in Jones v Tsige, but rather followed the divergent train of reasoning for general damages that began with the “Jane Doe” cases (Jane Doe 464533 v N.D., 2017 ONSC 127 and Jane Doe 72511 v. Morgan, 2018 ONSC 6607):

[186] There is no claim for pecuniary damages; the only issue is non-pecuniary damages. The infliction of mental suffering and invasion of privacy are based on many of the same facts.

[187] On damages for intrusion on seclusion, the Court of Appeal in Jones v. Tsige held at paragraphs 87-88 that damages for intrusion upon seclusion in cases where the plaintiff has suffered no pecuniary loss should be modest, in a range up to $20,000. The important distinction with the two invasion of privacy torts in issue here, however, is that intrusion on seclusion does not involve publicity to the outside world: they are damages meant to represent an invasion of the plaintiff’s privacy by the defendant, not the separate and significant harm occasioned by publicity.

[188] The two Jane Doe cases have recognized that the cap on damages for intrusion upon seclusion may not apply to the other forms of invasion of privacy: Jane Doe 2016 at para. 58; Jane Doe 2018 at paras. 127-132. In this case, as is in those, the “modest conventional sum” that might vindicate the “intangible” interest at stake in Jones v. Tsige, para. 71, would not do justice to the harm the plaintiff has suffered.

[189] In Jane Doe 2016, at para. 52, Stinson J. turned to sexual battery cases for guidance in arriving at an award, and Gomery J. in Jane Doe 2018, at paras. 127-128 followed the same approach. In support of this approach, Stinson, J. pointed to the similarly of the psychological and emotional harm the plaintiff had suffered to that experienced by victims of sexual assault.

[190] I likewise adopt the method of looking to the factors applied to decide damage awards for a tort causing harms analogous to those the present plaintiff has suffered for invasion of privacy. The harm arising from the invasion of privacy in the present case is akin to defamation. Accordingly, in arriving at an award of non-pecuniary damages, I am guided by the factors described by Cory J. in Hill v Church of Scientology, at para. 187, which I am adapting to the tort of publicity placing a person a false light:

  1. the nature of the false publicity and the circumstances in which it was made,
  2. the nature and position of the victim of the false publicity,
  3. the possible effects of the false publicity statement upon the life of the plaintiff, and
  4. the actions and motivations of the defendant.

[191] In this case, the false publicity is egregious, involving alleged criminal acts including by Ms. Gulian against her children. The false publicity is widely disseminated on the internet, as well as through targeted dissemination to church friends and business associates. Ms. Gulian has suffered damage as a mother, as an employee, in the Armenian community, and in her church community. She is peculiarly vulnerable as the spouse of the disseminator of false publicity. The false publicity has had a detrimental effect on Ms. Gulian’s health and welfare, humiliation, caused her fear, and could be expected as well to affect her social standing and position. Mr. Yenovkian has not apologized, nor has he retracted the outrageous comments despite court orders.

[192] The damages for intentional infliction of mental suffering are intended to be compensatory. I award $50,000 compensatory damages for intentional infliction of mental suffering, relying on Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., 2014 ONCA 419.

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