Failure by a realtor to use an apostrophe in a Facebook post could prove costly after a New South Wales court refused to dismiss a libel case against him on the grounds that it was insignificant.
Late on October 22 of last year, Anthony Zadravic announced that another real estate agent “was selling multi-million dollar (sic) homes in Pearl Beach but couldn’t pay his employees’ pensions.”
“Shame on you Stuart !!! 2 years and still pending !!! ” the post read.
There is a suggestion that the NSW Central Coast real estate agent wanted to have an apostrophe after the word employee and was only referring to his experience.
He says the post, written around 10:30 p.m., was deleted within 12 hours and was not capable of defaming people as claimed.
The legal costs and legal resources required to adjudicate the claim would also be disproportionate to the interests at stake, he said.
But last week, the NSW District Court dismissed his request to dismiss, underscoring the seriousness of the claims in the post and finding that the alleged defamatory meanings could reasonably be conveyed.
Judge Judith Gibson said the difficulty for Zadravic was the use of employees in the plural as it suggests “a pattern of systematic conduct.”
“Not paying an employee’s retirement pension can be considered unhappy; not paying some or all of them seems deliberate, ”she said Thursday.
She heard that the estimated cost of the trial was $ 160,000, which could be as high as $ 250,000 if lead counsel was retained.
But it was irrelevant that these costs far exceeded the potential award of damages.
“I agree this is a matter of concern but unlike other jurisdictions such as the UK, Australian lawmakers have refrained from any investigation or research into the costs of defamation in this country, it so this is unlikely to change at any time in the future, ”Gibson said.
The court noted two recent Queensland decisions in which Facebook posts cost their authors dearly.
In 2020, a Brisbane vet and his business received $ 25,000 after a former client repeatedly claimed on Facebook and other websites that the vet grossly overcharged her.
A year earlier, the court awarded $ 15,000 for allegations on Facebook posts and comments that an elderly care nurse was fired for drinking.
Meanwhile, federal court ruled in August against basketball player Ben Simmons’ half-brother over baseless child abuse allegations.
In the same court, Defense Minister Peter Dutton is suing a refugee activist over a tweet calling him “an apologist for rape.”
Dutton said the tweet was deeply offensive because it was the opposite of who he was.
Defamation attorney Rebekah Giles said there was often an occasional rejection of defamatory comments on social media.
“When you consider the devastating effect widely shared slanderous messages can have on her life, it is clear that this approach is unwarranted,” she said.
By their very nature, social media platforms disseminate information easily, widely and quickly.
“A social media post can reach a larger audience than the Sydney Morning Herald front page – in a matter of hours. Serious damage can be inflicted easily, ”she said.
Giles said most cases are resolved judiciously with a deletion of a post, an apology, and payment of court costs.
But some of his clients have received $ 500,000 after being the subject of defamatory social media posts.
Melbourne lawyer Katarina Klaric said the past decade has seen an exponential growth in social media defamation cases, with particular growth in work related to Google reviews.
Often the reviews are bogus, made by competitors or disgruntled customers, she said.
“You can create a Gmail account under any name,” Klaric said.
Deleting offending messages posted under fictitious names requires sending legal takedown notices to Facebook or Google or asking tech giants to hand over the IP address. Often, computer forensics experts are hired to investigate and determine the origin of the defamatory message.
“Some cases are so serious that they require police intervention,” Klaric said.
With nine out of ten cases settled before reaching court, Klaric said there was a need to change the law to avoid forcing people to go through the “very expensive” court process.
“You want to be able to get defamatory messages removed quickly, but you want to do it cost effectively,” she said.
Zadravic will return to court in the coming weeks to determine how the case against him unfolds.