A leading lawyer who represented a hotel owner awarded damages over a Facebook post says the court’s ruling demonstrates the serious legal consequences of social media defamation.
The NSW District Court awarded $150,000 to NSW grandfather Kenneth Rothe on Friday over a Facebook post that incorrectly accused the hotel owner of providing accommodation to paedophiles.
Mr Rothe’s lawyer, Andy Munro from law firm Slater and Gordon, said the compensation order was one for the highest by an Australian court for social media defamation.
“The court’s decision reinforces earlier rulings that defamation extends to social media,” Mr Munro said.
“What you write on social media is considered under defamation law to be published to the world at large in the same way as a newspaper article is.
“The judge has sent a clear warning to social media users that courts are prepared to award substantial damages against people who use social media platforms to sully the reputation of others.”
Mr Rothe is a well-respected and prominent public figure in the Nambucca Head business community, a small seaside town of around 6,000 people, on the NSW mid north coast.
The court ruled the former deputy school principal was defamed by local electrician David Scott.
Mr Munro commended Mr Rothe, 74, for taking legal action against Mr Scott to clear his name.
“Mr Rothe tried to reason with Mr Scott, by asking him to contact his Facebook ‘friends’ and correct the false accusations, and to apologise to him. Mr Scott refused,” Mr Munro said.
“The consequences of the Facebook post have been truly devastating for Mr Rothe. A few weeks after the Facebook post, he was assaulted in his motel by unknown assailants and was knocked unconscious. In January this year, he was again attacked from behind in a vicious assault that left him with a broken neck and resulted in him spending six months in hospital.
“Against doctors’ orders, Mr Rothe checked himself out of hospital in Coffs Harbour so he could attend the recent hearing in Sydney - such was his passion to clear his name.”
Mr Munro said there is no suggestion Mr Scott had anything to do with the assaults.
“I have personally witnessed the decline of Mr Rothe over the course of this case. Two vicious assaults have clearly taken a toll on his body and left him unable to earn an income for six months. However, his resolve to defend his reputation has not been altered.
“The court has awarded him $150,000 and is yet to determine the question of legal costs.
“This is the one highest award of damages for defamation on social media to date, which should go some way to repairing the damage to Mr Rothe’s reputation.
“I encourage anyone who believes that they have been defamed on social media in the same way as my client to investigate whether they too have legal rights.”
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