Susan Kootnekoff is the founder of Inspire Law, an Okanagan based-law practice. She has been practicing law since 1994, with brief stints away to begin raising children. Susan has experience in many areas of law, but is most drawn to areas in which she can make a positive difference in people’s lives, including employment law. She has been a member of the Law Society of Alberta since 1994 and a member of the Law Society of British Columbia since 2015. Susan grew up in Saskatchewan. Her parents were both entrepreneurs, and her father was also a union leader who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of workers. Before moving to B.C., Susan practiced law in both Calgary and Fort McMurray, AB. Living and practicing law in Fort McMurray made a lasting impression on Susan. It was in this isolated and unique community that her interest in employment law, and Canada’s oil sands industry, took hold. In 2013, Susan moved to the Okanagan with her family, where she currently resides. Photo: Contributed

Kootnekoff: Defamation on social media leads to $65,000 in punitive damages

The popularity of social media gives rise to a whole new group of potential defamation claims

“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.” – Joseph Hall.

Words, once spoken, can be impossible to every really take back.

The popularity of social media gives rise to a whole new group of potential defamation claims.

One case illustrates the importance of being careful when posting on social media sites. This case also demonstrates the importance of being careful when forwarding on or re-posting such comments, and failing to remove any additional comments added by others.

Pritchard v. Van Nes began as a dispute between two next door neighbours. After one heated event, the defendant took to Facebook and vented. She made various remarks about the plaintiff, who was a well-liked and respected middle school music teacher. The court ultimately found that the attacks on the plaintiff’s character were false. She insinuated, for example, that he was a pedophile and expressed some concern that he worked for a school district.

At the time, the defendant had over 2000 Facebook ‘friends’. Her privacy settings were set to ‘public’, meaning there were no restrictions on who could see her posts. Several of her friends posted replies to her original post. Many were derogatory toward the plaintiff. At least one ‘shared’ it, and also emailed the plaintiff’s principal to warn that he could be a pedophile.

The plaintiff sued the defendant for defamation and nuisance. He testified about the significant and irreparable harm that the defendant’s posts had caused him.

The court found that the Facebook posts profoundly and adversely affected his quality of life.

The defendant was held liable for damages for the defamatory remarks she made.

Interestingly, the court also held her liable for others’ republications of her defamatory remarks and for the email from one of her Facebook friend to the plaintiff’s principal. It noted that Facebook’s structure is such that anyone who posts in such mediums must realize that his or her post could be widely disseminated. Choosing this forum within which to post implicitly authorized republication of her posts both within social media and through other forms of electronic communication including email.

The court also found that the defendant knew of her friends’ defamatory comments. Although she had control of her Facebook page, she did not delete either those comments or her original posts. The court commented that the nature of Facebook created a reasonable expectation of further defamatory statements being made.

The court acknowledged the severity of allegations of this type to a teacher’s reputation, and noted that the impact would likely continue into the future.

In the end, the plaintiff was awarded $50,000 in damages. Partly to discourage reckless online behavior, a further $15,000 was awarded as punitive damages.

The moral of this story? Before “venting” on social media, take a few deep breaths, and consider whether doing so may not be such a great idea after all.

The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Specialist advice from a qualified legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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