Life Tech Social media slanders: A missing apostrophe could cost a fortune in damages

Social media slanders: A missing apostrophe could cost a fortune in damages

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Share what you really think of someone on social media and it could mean a six-figure payout. Photo: Getty
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A real estate agent’s failure to use an apostrophe in a Facebook post could cost him dearly after a court declined to dismiss the case against him on the basis it was trivial.

Late on the night of October 22 in 2020, Anthony Zadravic posted that another real estate agent was “selling multi million $ (sic) homes in Pearl Beach but can’t pay his employees superannuation”.

“Shame on you Stuart!!! 2 yrs and still waiting!!!” the post read.

There is a suggestion the NSW Central Coast realtor meant to have an apostrophe after the word employee and was only referring to his own personal experience.

He says the post, made about 10.30pm, was deleted within 12 hours and wasn’t capable of defaming the people as claimed.

The legal costs and court resources required to determine the claim would also be out of all proportion to the interest at stake, he claimed.

But the NSW District Court last week turned down his application to dismiss, pointing to the seriousness of the claims in the post and finding the alleged defamatory meanings reasonably capable of being conveyed.

Six-figure sums

Judge Judith Gibson said the difficulty for Mr Zadravic was the use of ’employees’ in the plural as it suggests “a systematic pattern of conduct”.

“To fail to pay one employee’s superannuation entitlement might be seen as unfortunate; to fail to pay some or all of them looks deliberate,” she said on Thursday.

She heard the estimated cost of the trial was $160,000, rising to $250,000 if senior counsel was retained.

But it wasn’t relevant that those costs far exceeded the potential award of damages.

“I agree this is a matter for concern but, unlike other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, Australian legislators have shied away from any inquiries or research projects into defamation costs in this country, so this is unlikely to change at any stage in the future,” Judge Gibson said.

The court noted two recent Queensland decisions in which Facebook posts cost their authors dearly.

In 2020, a Brisbane vet and his company were awarded $25,000 after a former client repeatedly claimed on Facebook and other websites the vet had grossly overcharged her.

A year earlier, the court awarded $15,000 over claims on Facebook posts and comments that an aged-care nurse was sacked for alcohol use.

Meanwhile, the Federal Court in August found in favour of basketballer Ben Simmons’s half-brother over baseless child abuse claims about him.

In the same court Defence Minister Peter Dutton is suing a refugee activist over a tweet dubbing him a “rape apologist”.

Mr Dutton said the tweet was deeply offensive because it was the opposite of who he was.

Defamation lawyer Rebekah Giles says there is often a casual dismissal of defamatory comments on social media.

Reputational slurs linger

“When one considers the devastating effect that widely shared defamatory posts can have on one’s life, it’s plain that that approach is unjustified,” she told AAP.

By their very nature, social media platforms disseminate information easily, widely and quickly.

“A social media post can reach a wider audience than the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald – in a matter of hours. Serious harm can be inflicted with ease,” she said.

Ms Giles says most cases are sensibly resolved with the deletion of a post, an apology and payment of legal costs. But some of her clients have been awarded as much as $500,000 after being the subject of defamatory social media posts.

Melbourne lawyer Katarina Klaric says the past decade has brought exponential growth in social media defamation cases, with particular growth in work related to Google reviews.

Often the reviews are fake, made by competitors or disgruntled customers, she said.

“You can create a Gmail account under any name,” Ms Klaric said.