Accountant loses $120,000 defamation claim after judge rules negative Facebook comments were “honest opinion”

Accountant loses $120,000 defamation claim after judge rules negative Facebook comments were “honest opinion"

 

A Perth accountant lost his defamation claim against a woman who posted negative comments about him on a Facebook page for British expats living in Western Australia.

Barry McEloney, a chartered accountant with his own practice in Perth, argued he was entitled to more than $120,000 in damages because the comments were “defamatory statements for an improper purpose”.

The District Court of Western Australia heard the women described McEloney as a “clown” and “rude and obnoxious” in a series of comments posted on the “Poms in Perth” Facebook page last year.

McEloney argued before the court that the Facebook comments were defamatory and implied he was unprofessional, rude to clients, overcharged for his services and did not provide a good service.

The defendant, Stephanie Massey, meanwhile argued her statements were the expression of an honest opinion made in the public interest.

In her ruling, Judge Annette Schoombee said an “ordinary and reasonable reader” of the Facebook page would be under the impression it was a space where people were offering their opinions about various goods and services around Perth.

“Ms Massey employed colourful language using words such as ‘clown’ and ‘shark’ which were perhaps over the top and exaggerated, but an ordinary reasonable reader of the Facebook page Poms in Perth would have understood that she was expressing her opinion about her specific dealings with Mr McEloney,” Schoombee said.

“Accordingly, I find that the defence of honest opinion is made out in respect of all the statements made and conclusions offered by Ms Massey on the Facebook page of Poms in Perth.”

As a result, McEloney was not successful in his claim for damages and the case was dismissed.

David Rolf, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Law, told SmartCompany the accountant lost this case due to a number of factors.

“The problem for the plaintiff was that several of the imputations were found by the judge to be true,” Rolf says.

“If someone publishes something about you that is true, truth is a defence to defamation.”

Rolf says Massey also successfully argued the Facebook posts were “fair comment”.

“The other thing I thought was interesting about this case was the judge went on to find the imputations on the Facebook page were defensible as either fair comment or honest opinion,” he says.

“The defence of fair comment is meant to be a very important for the freedom of expression… but it is highly technical and very rarely succeeds in practice. This is a rare example of a defence of fair comment succeeding.”

SmartCompany contacted Barry McEloney but did not receive a response prior to publication.

SmartCompany was unable to contact Stephanie Massey for comment.

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