People are entitled to express their opinions online, however, when those posts are untrue and have the potential to negatively impact another person or business, the poster may end up being found liable for defamation. We previously wrote about an Ontario court decision in which a man was ordered to pay $50,000 to a doctor for negative online comments and reviews he posted. The doctor had acted as an expert witness in a medical malpractice trial involving a patient who had died. The doctor acted as an expert for the defendant physician, and the deceased man’s brother took issue with his testimony. Afterward, he began a campaign of leaving negative reviews on a popular online doctor-rating site, despite the fact that he had never been a patient of the doctor’s.
A recent news story has similar issues at hand, in that the president of a medical imaging centre in Guelph has filed a civil suit against two individuals as a result of social media posts he claims are false and defamatory.
Establishing a Defamation Claim in Ontario
Before we discuss the details of the case mentioned above, it’s helpful to review the elements of defamation and libel in Ontario.
Defamation occurs when someone makes false statements about another person or business that can harm that person or business’s reputation. This potential harm is determined objectively; meaning that a statement could be considered defamatory if a reasonable person would be likely to consider the statement(s) harmful.
Libel is a form of defamation, in which the defamatory statements are made in writing. “In writing” means there is a documented record of the statements, which could include publication in a newspaper, or online, through a blog or posts on social medial sites like Twitter or Facebook.
Slander is another form of defamation, however unlike libel, the defamatory statements are made verbally, so there is no printed record.
In order to successfully prove defamation, a plaintiff must establish the following factors:
- The defamatory representations were made to a third-party;
- The statements contained something which would be likely to lower the opinion or reputation of the plaintiff (i.e. the individual or organization bringing the defamation claim) “in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally” or expose the plaintiff to hatred, contempt, or ridicule; and
- The statements would be understood as defamatory by an ordinary, reasonable person.
Guelph Resident Posts Comments About Plaintiff on Twitter
In the current situation, the plaintiff is the president of a medical imaging centre located in Guelph. The defendants, SEB and KEB, are a married couple who reside in Guelph. In 2020, SEB allegedly posted a tweet on her personal Twitter account lamenting the fact that she had to travel outside of Guelph for imaging services because “the CEO of our monopolized imaging healthcare here calls people [derogatory word for transgender individuals] and hates gay pride”.
According to the statement of defence, the woman who posted the comments on Twitter had noticed in 2019 that the plaintiff had been using the imaging centre’s official Twitter account, as well as the account belonging to the United Brotherhood of Medical Imaging Clinics of Ontario to tweet “highly charged, inflammatory and discriminatory political messages”. She first contacted the plaintiff directly on Twitter to challenge his comments, after which she claims he “unleashed a tirade of abuse” towards her. This is what prompted her to publish multiple posts bringing these inflammatory tweets to the attention of residents and leaders in Guelph.
In June 2021, SEB allegedly tweeted:
This #PrideMonth2021, I want to remind #Guelph leaders that gay residents in the city are being forced to seek healthcare diagnostics in other cities, because Guelph Medical Imaging is owned and lead [sic] by a man who thinks and tweets this stuff:
Attached to this tweet were three tweets attributed to the plaintiff’s account. In one, he allegedly asked the Prime Minister not to “defile our flag” alongside a photo of Prime Minister Trudeau in a Pride parade waving a Canadian flag augmented with pride colours. In another tweet, responding to a news item about Mayor John Tory attending a drag performance, the plaintiff allegedly used a slur used to describe transgender people.
Allegations Have Yet to Be Heard in Court
The plaintiff brought a claim in his own name, and in the name of the clinic, against SEB and her wife, seeking $6 million in damages. While SEB claims the tweets in question were her own and her wife was uninvolved, the statement of claim says that KEB is vicariously liable for her wife’s tweets.
In response, SEB and KEB have brought an anti-SLAPP motion, seeking to have the claim dismissed as it is an attempt to shut down discourse on an issue relevant to the public interest. They further claim that the matter should be dismissed, given that SEB’s tweets were all in response to claims the plaintiff himself made:
The June 11 tweet was in no way defamatory. [SEB] was drawing attention to statements that the plaintiffs had actually, publicly made. If there was any reputational harm, it was caused by [the plaintiff] himself, by tweeting inappropriate anti-LGBTQ messages from his professional Twitter accounts.
For Exceptional Legal Representation in Libel and Defamation Matters Contact Milosevic Fiske LLP in Toronto
If you are an individual or organization and believe that defamatory comments have been made about you in the media or online, or if you have been accused of making defamatory statements, contact the highly knowledgeable defamation, libel and slander lawyers at Milosevic Fiske LLP as soon as possible. Our goal is to immediately protect you, your reputation, and your livelihood. Call us at 416-916-1387 or contact us online.