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A timely reminder about defamation

Defamation appears to be a popular topic of late. Following Geoffrey Rush’s award of the largest personal defamation payout in Australian legal history, comes a residential apartment tenant who was recently awarded an amount that may well be the largest body corporate related payout.

The decision in Raynor v Murray [2019] NSWDC 189, sends a strong message to Owners Corporation, managers, caretakers, tenants and the like.

In this case Mr Raynor (the plaintiff), who was a tenant and chair of the strata committee for a residential complex in Manly NSW, brought defamation proceedings against a fellow tenant, Mrs Murray (the defendant), for publication of an email which he claimed was defamatory. Mr Raynor was successful in his claim and was subsequently awarded both general and aggravated damages totalling $120,000.

The catalyst for such a claim, started over the security of the apartment complex’s letterboxes. Bearing in mind identity fraud and letter box break ins had been considerably prevalent in Sydney NSW at the time, Mr Raynor was concerned with the complex’s security. Mr Raynor was troubled with Mrs Murray, who consistently left her letter box unlocked. Following numerous emails sent by Mr Raynor to Mrs Murray, the complex’s letter boxes were broken into on two occasions. It was noted that Mr Raynor’s emails were merely an expression of concern deserving of investigation, rather than a definitive accusation towards Mrs Morgan.

Mrs Murray made a conscious decision to ignore all of Mr Raynor’s emails. However, one day Mrs Murray lashed out and sent an email addressed to both Mr Murray and all occupants within the complex. This email subsequently became the basis for Mr Raynor’s defamation claim.

A quote taken from Mrs Murray’s email included:

“…your consistent attempt to shame me publicly is cowardly. It is also offensive, harassing and menacing through the use of technology to threaten me. Please stop!”

At trial, the Judge found that Mrs Murray’s response email was disproportionate and went completely outside the parameters of the subject matter of Mr Raynor’s original emails. However, compared to many e-mail exchanges we see, Mrs Murray’s response would be well down the scale of gravity. Despite that, a judgement of defamation was found on the following basis:

It would be fair to say that every sentence of the defendant’s email in reply struck a blow at the plaintiff, and was intended to ridicule and humiliate him in every way“.

In addition, the fact that Mrs Murray decided to copy in all residing tenants with her email to Mr Raynor, strengthened Mr Raynor’s defamation claim.

Take-aways from this case

Therefore, coming back to the principal takeaway from this case, building managers, bodies corporate, owners and tenants should take extra precaution as to what they publish either by email or other methods of electronic communication. It is clear Australian courts do not treat defamation by email lightly, particularly when there is the risk of it coming to the attention of multiple people.

This issue may have easily been avoided had Mrs Murray simply left her emotions aside. Alternative methods can be sought to resolve a body corporate dispute and in a dispute situation early and competent legal advice can usually assist.  

General Communication Protocols when communicating with fellow owners, tenants, committees and bodies corporate include (but are not limited to):

  • Refraining from copying communications to the addressee or e-mail addresses of individual committee members.
  • The communication must be reasonable, respectful and constructive and be consistent, both as to context and expression.
  • Communication must not be unduly frequent so at to cause a nuisance or inconvenience.

Article by: John Coleman – Paralegal, Brisbane