Malicious comments on social media can have costly consequences. This was demonstrated in Cables v Winchester  VSC 392. Ms Cables, the owner of multiple McDonald’s franchises, sued Mr Winchester for a series of defamatory comments he posted on the “Everything Albury Wodonga” Facebook page (“the Facebook Page”).
Ms Cables operated multiple McDonald’s franchises for over 20 years, employing around 500 people. In 1997 she received the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year award and she is a prominent member of the Albury community where she operates a McDonald’s.
Mr Winchester, the boyfriend of one of Ms Cables’ employees, posted 9 publications on the Facebook Page, each publication contained numerous allegations against Ms Cables. Even though the publications didn’t use Ms Cables’ name, her prominent position in a relatively small community meant that it was still obvious that the publications were about her. The publications alleged, amongst other things, that Ms Cables:
- operated her McDonald’s franchises in an unhygienic and unsafe manner;
- is dishonest in her bookwork; and
- assaulted an employee with a chicken wrap.
The only evidence before the Court as to the motivation of Mr Winchester was that on the night of the publications his partner had returned from work upset.
The Court’s Findings
The court found that the posts were defamatory. The Court found that the defamatory posts were published to at least 9,477 people who followed the Facebook page. The Court also noted that as a publicly accessible page, other people who did not ‘follow’ the page or like the page may have seen the publications, and additionally the “grapevine” effect meant it was likely that the publications would have spread further still. The “grapevine” effect has been described as the realistic recognition by the law that, by the ordinary function of human nature, the dissemination of defamatory material is rarely confined to those to whom the matter is immediately published.
There was direct evidence of damage to Ms Cables’ mental health and wellbeing as well as her professional reputation within the Albury community. The publications even raised the attention of the McDonald’s Head Office in Sydney, who summoned Ms Cables to an urgent meeting. She was told that head office were investigating the allegations made in the publications and that if they were true, she would be required to sell her franchises.
Ms Cables was awarded damages of $200,000. The Court considered aggravated damages to be appropriate because Mr Winchester published the words solely to injure Ms Cables’ reputation, refused to apologise and did not participate in the trial. What’s more, Mr Winchester encouraged scores of comments which denigrated Ms Cables to be published.
- Be careful when posting anything on social media that could be considered to be defamatory
- This case demonstrates the power of the “grapevine” effect, especially when it comes to social media. Controlling the dissemination of an online publication can be extremely difficult, even if the original publication is deleted.
- Even if you don’t mention a person by name in something you post, if their identity is obvious by implication, comments about them can still be defamatory.
If you would like to read more about defamation, please follow this link.
If you require advice or assistance in relation to a matter involving defamation – please follow the link below.