A “petty neighbourhood squabble” fit for A Current Affair won’t cost a Sydney woman $300,000 after an appeal court found all but one of her defamatory statements were substantially true.
Lawyer Vanessa Hutley was ordered to pay damages to her neighbour Anthony Cosco after accusing him on Nine’s tabloid television program in 2016 of bullying herself and her family, and directly endangering their lives.
The bitter dispute began when Mr Cosco carried out constructions on the neighbouring house purchased in the suburb of Balmain in Sydney’s inner west in 2013.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Rothman said the “petty neighbourhood squabble” was “essentially caused by the arrogance and feeling of superiority” of Ms Hutley.
But the Court of Appeal on Tuesday overturned the judgment, finding Mr Cosco endangered Ms Hutley’s family by placing flammable expanding foam into a vent.
The vent led from Ms Hutley’s kitchen rangehood to a location near where Mr Cosco was planning to build a fence.
At a hearing earlier this month, Mr Cosco’s barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC said Ms Hutley had presented herself “to one million viewers” as the victim of an unprovoked and ongoing campaign.
But it was “far from the truth”, the barrister said, pointing to a conversation in which Ms Hutley and her husband threatened to “roast you, we’re lawyers”.
“Does this sound like people who are feeling intimidated or bullied?” Ms Chrysanthou SC asked the appeal judges.
But the court on Tuesday said Mr Cosco had bullied, having taken matters into his own hands when unable to persuade his neighbour that work to move or block the vent should be carried out and carried out immediately.
“Threatening to damage someone else’s home because they do not promptly comply with your requests is the act of a bully, as is carrying out the threat,” Justice John Basten said in written reasons.
“For that reason alone, (the) imputation was shown to be substantially true.”
The court also found the builder was responsible for abuse written in cement outside Ms Hutley’s home.
One of Ms Hutley’s claims – that Mr Cosco had harassed her by throwing fencing materials onto her front lawn – wasn’t found to be substantially true as the court found Ms Hutley and her husband had made the first move.
But the court found Mr Cosco hadn’t suffered further harm to his already-pocked reputation.
It was substantially true that he was a liar, based on lies to police and a magistrate, and had acted dishonourably by entering administration shortly after agreeing to pay Ms Hutley a large sum over a mistake during the Balmain construction, the court found.
Before Tuesday’s judgment, Mr Cosco had been awarded $300,000 in damages, $60,000 in interest and was to have Ms Hutley pay his legal costs.
But the successful appeal means the builder will now have to cover his and Ms Hutley’s legal costs for both the trial and appeal.