The Supreme Court of Victoria has ordered Yahoo! Inc to pay damages of $225,000 to a Melbourne man after a jury found he had been defamed by a crime website which included an article sourced from the Herald Sun.
The article included images of well-known criminals but also showed Michael Trkulja’s face, and said that Trkulja had been shot by a hitman.
The jury found that the article implied that Trkulja was so involved in Melbourne crime that his rivals had hired a hitman to kill him.
Justice Stephen Kaye awarded $225,000 in damages out of a maximum cap on statutory damages in Victoria of $324,000.
Graeme Efron, partner at Efron and Associates who represented Trkulja in the case, told SmartCompany “it is a landmark decision and a hard-fought decision”.
“Based on the cap, it is a substantial award and it does reflect that this was a serious case of defamation and our client was affected by it.
“The publisher Yahoo! did have the opportunity to rectify the defamation and they did not.”
The decision has far reaching legal ramifications according to the law firm Middletons as it is the first case where a search engine has admitted that it publishes material from a website that it does not have any control over.
“What is significant is that Yahoo 7 was found liable by the judge in respect of a website where its search engine simply produced a result,” says Middletons partner David Hope.
“What the judge has taken into account is the fact that the plaintiff’s lawyers had written long ago to Yahoo! asking that they block that result from coming up and they refused.
“Over time the search engines seem to have been more willing to block websites if they receive letters asking for these websites to be blocked for material that could be seriously defamatory.
“I think this case highlights that they do need to be aware of blocking defamatory websites when they are put on notice of their existence.“
Hope says it is important to note that the judge did not make a finding that search engines publish material that can be accessed through their search engines, as Yahoo! admitted publication in its defence.
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However, Hope says Yahoo!’s admission is likely to place pressure on other internet search engines to admit they are publishers in other cases.
“Once a well-known search engine has admitted once that it has ‘published’ it then raises the question if they are prepared to admit it then what reason has [another search engine] got for not admitting it,” says Hope.
Separate proceedings are being brought by Trkulja against Google in relation to the publication of the same material, however, Hope says he does not think Google will take the same approach of admitting publication.
“I would be surprised if Google did that,” says Hope.
Amanda Millar, head of marketing and corporate affairs at Yahoo!, told SmartCompany that the search engine is considering its appeal options.
“Yahoo! strongly disagrees with the determination that Mr Trkulja was defamed or the decision that he is entitled to damages in this case,” she says.
“Yahoo! did not create the content at issue, did not host the content, and never received an order from a competent court declaring it illegal or ordering its removal from search results.
“Yahoo! is a global company so we have visibility of similar cases across the world.”
“This ruling is inconsistent with similar cases in other countries and seems out of step with international views in regards to responsibility for content indexed in search engines.”