[author: Alexander Gregg]
Misuse of social media can prove expensive.
The New South Wales District Court’s recent decision in North Coast Children’s Home Inc v Martin  NSWDC 125 demonstrates that defamatory remarks posted on social media platforms such as Facebook can sound in significant damages.
The North Coast Children’s Home was first set up in 1919. It operated as part of the local Anglican Diocese until its management committee was incorporated in 1989.
The association, its current Manager of Foster Care Services and its current Chief Executive Officer were the subject of a number of Facebook posts made by Mr Martin, a former foster carer. Mr Martin also sent emails to foster carers and the Director of Professional Standards and Fostering New South Wales. The posts and emails alleged (among other things) that the association was a dishonest organisation that neglected the children under its care and also engaged in child abuse. Mr Martin made statements to the effect that the manager was dishonest, involved in a scam, incompetent, unqualified, treated foster care providers badly and did not care about children under her care. Mr Martin made similar allegations against the CEO and also alleged that he was a child abuser. Mr Martin made seven Facebook posts to a Facebook page hosted by someone who had suffered abuse while an occupant of the home some 30 to 40 years earlier. Mr Martin refused to remove the post when requested by the association on a number of occasions.
The association, the manager and the CEO brought an action against Mr Martin seeking damages for defamation.
In his written submissions to the court, Mr Martin adopted a ‘no smoke without fire’ approach and attempted to link the historical allegations against the home to its current management.
The court rejected Mr Martin’s submissions in their entirety. The court found that there was no link whatsoever between the home, its current manager and CEO and the historic allegations from forty years ago.
The court awarded the association $50,000 in damages as vindication. As a body corporate, it was not entitled to aggravated compensatory damages. This was not the case with the home’s manager and CEO, who were awarded $100,000 damages each. Mr Martin’s statements caused the manager injury to her mental health which necessitated treatment by a psychologist. The court was satisfied that the effect upon her was significant and that she suffered greatly as a result of Mr Martin’s actions. The impact of the publications on the CEO’s health was also severe because he had a prior history of depression. As a result of the publications, he required medical treatment. The court found that Mr Martin’s allegation that the CEO was a child abuser was a particularly serious imputation, which was inflamed by Mr Martin’s written submissions which sneered at the CEO’s prior history of depression.
The $250,000 total damages award emphasises the importance of cautious use of social media. While a user may not intend for their comments to be viewed by the world at large, defamatory posts can clearly result in significant legal liabilities.