Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686
Facebook postings are free to make in the first instance, but can prove very costly in the end. Pritchard and Van Nes, a recent decision of the British Columbia Supreme Court, is a stark reminder about how serious the impacts of thoughtless social media postings can be, especially when they are defamatory in nature.
The Pritchard and Van Nes families became neighbours in 2008. At the time of the events in question, Mr. Pritchard was a music teacher at a local school. He had been teaching at the school for the previous three years and by all accounts was well regarded.
The relationship between the neighbours began to deteriorate in 2011 when the Van Nes’s installed a large fish pond along the rear of their property. The two level pond included waterfalls that ran continuously both day and night. The resulting noise from the waterfalls disturbed the Pritchards, especially at night when it interrupted their sleep. After the Pritchards made a number of complaints to the local municipality, and to the Van Nes’s themselves, the Van Nes’s commenced a series of petty harassments against the Pritchards as “payback” for the complaints. The harassments consisted of such things as parking vehicles on the street so as to partially block access to the Pritchards’ driveway. The Van Nes’s permitted their dog to regularly trespass on the Pritchard property where it frequently defecated. At another point, they set off a small explosion in their backyard during one of their frequent late night parties and claimed the explosion was from a stick of dynamite.
Ultimately, the relationship between the neighbours degenerated further with a series of of Facebook postings over a relatively brief period of time made by Ms. Van Nes about Mr. Pritchard. The Pritchards commenced a court action against the Van Nes’s in nuisance for the noise from their pond and in defamation for the Facebook postings made about Mr. Pritchard. The Van Nes’s declined to defend the law suit and default judgment was entered against them on the question of liability. This review deals only with the defamation part of the law suit.
Ms. Van Nes’s first post accused Mr. Pritchard of hanging mirrors in the backyard outside of his house in order to monitor activities in the Van Nes backyard. The only evidence put before the court established that Ms. Pritchard had hung just one ornamental mirror outside the back of the house as a feng shui decoration. The evidence established there was never more than one mirror in the Pritchard backyard and that it was never used by the Pritchards to monitor the Van Nes property.
The post further accused Mr. Pritchard of videotaping the Van Nes children 24/7 while they played in their backyard. Followup posts went further suggesting Mr. Pritchard was videotaping the daughters of friends that had come to stay with the Van Nes’s. It was suggested that Mr. Pritchard’s behaviour was becoming obsessive and abnormal. Ms. Van Nes posted that the behaviour was all the more alarming because of Mr. Pritchard’s position as a school teacher. Eventually, the posts raised the suggestion, though it was never explicitly stated by Ms. Van Nes herself, that Mr. Pritchard might be a paedophile. These posts prompted a small explosion of replies from Facebook friends variously referring to Mr. Pritchard as a freak, a creeper, a scumbag, a nightmare, a douche bag, mentally disturbed, a peeper, and a pedo. Eventually the postings, re-postings and replies prompted one Van Nes Facebook “friend” to contact the principal at Mr. Pritchard’s school. The email communication essentially advised the principal he had a paedophile on his hands in the person of Mr. Pritchard and that the school better take care of the problem before something happens. No evidence was was put before the court to prove the allegation Mr. Pritchard was videotaping anything or anyone in the Van Nes’s backyard, let alone that he was videotaping children for any improper purpose. In the end, all of the allegations made publicly against Mr. Pritchard had been made without any evidentiary support.
Mr. Pritchard was traumatized by the allegations. He was no longer able to interact with his students as he once properly and comfortably did out of fear of being misinterpreted. He had problems traveling with his classes on school outings. He declined job opportunities out of fear the Facebook allegations would surface afresh. He drastically reduced his extra-curricular activities with students. It was said his love of teaching was lost. The evidence before the court also indicated that a couple of neighbours reacted to and commented negatively on Mr. Pritchard as a result of the false allegations made against him.
As stated above, the Van Nes’s chose not to defend the Pritchards’ action against them, insofar as the determination of liability was concerned. Even though they had not attended the substantive portion of the trial, the Van Nes’s were permitted to and did attend at the court for the assessment of damages and costs. They were permitted to make submissions on these two subjects.
Ms. Van Nes was found liable not only for her own Facebook postings, but for all of the republications of her comments by Facebook “friends”, and for the correspondence between one of the “friends” and the principal at Mr. Pritchard’s school. Mr. Pritchard was awarded $50,000 in general damages, $15,000 in punitive damages and costs of the court action.
It bears being reminded that no social media platform is the place to vent frustration, anger, or hurt in a way that could be considered defamatory. Impugning the character of someone through allegations that have no evidentiary support can have far reaching serious and negative impacts. Not only can we be held responsible for our own comments that may be defamatory, we can also be held responsible for the comments of every one else who replies to, re-posts or otherwise repeats our comments.