Thinking about posting something mean about your no-good ex on Facebook? Read this first.
In a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision called Pritchard v. Van Nes, a woman was found liable to pay her neighbor $50,000 in damages for defamation, plus another $15,000 in punitive damages – all because of some Facebook posts that she and her Facebook “friends” had written about him.
She was held liable in nuisance for another $2,500.
The civil decision has very broad – and potentially very serious – ramifications in all areas of the law, including Family Law.
The woman’s defamatory Facebook post had been spurred by a dispute she had with her neighbor over some ordinary things: parking, loud noises and parties, a family dog, and the woman’s fish pond and waterfall.
Prompted by the neighbour’s complaints, the woman took to Facebook to air her grievance about him, calling him a “nutter” and a “creep”, and implying that he was filming her and her children “24/7”. Other comments hinted that was unfit in his job as a teacher, and that he was a pedophile. The woman’s friends added comments to her Facebook page in supportive response, and also shared the post with others. One friend even shared the woman’s initial comments on the neighbour’s own Facebook profile and then contacted his school principal by e-mail.
Even though the woman removed her original inflammatory posts about 24 hours later, she obviously could not remove the copies that had been replicated through various Facebook “shares”.
The neighbour sued for defamation and nuisance, and when the woman did not file a response, he succeeded in obtaining a court judgment in default, granting him almost $70,000 in damages.
In attaching civil liability to the woman for her Facebook-based conduct, the B.C. court made some interesting – and arguably concerning – conclusions about the responsibility that a Facebook poster or other social media user might have, even for posts that are later shared by others without the original poster’s knowledge or express permission.
Specifically, the court drew the following conclusions:
• The woman was liable for her own defamatory comments made via her Facebook profile.
• She was also liable for the republication of comments by her Facebook “friends”, and for the e-mail to the man’s school principal.
• Finally, she was also liable for any new defamatory comments made by her Facebook friends about the man, in response to her initial Facebook post.
The court’s extension of the woman’s liability for the conduct of her Facebook friends – over whom she has no direct control – is a legally noteworthy aspect of the court’s decision. It was based on the court’s conclusion that the woman had “constructive knowledge” that the posts were likely to be re-posted and repeated by her friends on Facebook. The court also pointed to the woman’s failure to rebut any of the new negative comments that the friends posted.
The decision raises important issues of how to impose responsibility for defamation in a world dominated by social media and calls into question the appropriate limits of responsibility where rapid (and sometimes careless) online dissemination of information is common.
The decision is also highly pertinent to Family Law situations, where the urge to vent one’s negative separation/divorce/custody stories on Facebook and other media platforms is compelling – and often it seems – both irresistible and irreversible.
Was this stretching the law of defamation in new directions? Probably. Should the law be stretched this far? Let us know your thoughts.
For the full text of the decision, see: