A former Surry Hills policeman who commenced defamation proceedings against a number of organisations and individuals has finally been awarded damages of $7500 over a single comment made to one person.
In a default judgment, NSW Supreme Court Justice Lucy McCallum said she was satisfied that the plaintiff was “extremely hurt by the defamatory remark that he is a criminal”.
Brendan Ritson (pic) commenced defamation proceedings in 2011 over a number of publications related to his suspension from duty in 2009 for telling a man in custody that his partner was transgender.
The allegedly defamatory statements were made by individuals or organisations with an interest in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and criticised Ritson for continuing to receive a portion of his wage despite being convicted of breaching the trangender person’s confidentiality.
Some proceedings were settled and others struck outbecause they were out of time.
The action against Burns was added in 2012 and claimed Burns told a process server, Mark Slater:
“Brendan Ritson is a criminal. I’m not going to give you my address; you can go and serve Santa Claus.”
Ritson claimed the words conveyed that he is a criminal.
As Justice McCallum wryly noted, “In due course an order was made for substituted service (not in the manner suggested by Mr Burns to Mr Slater).”
Burns indicated he was not going to file a defence and Her Honour proceeded directly to the issue of damages.
While Justice McCallum described the publication as being “of the most limited scope”, she found the imputation to be “a serious one”.
“To be accused of having acted outside the law is among the most serious of allegations that could be levelled at a police officer (whether currently serving or not).”
Her Honour found Ritson’s evidence as to the level of his distress “compelling”. She quoted some of that evidence:
“It disgusted me. It was very hurtful and it did cause me significant distress that Mr Burns was persisting with making defamatory comments about me. I’d fought for several years to clear my name and successfully did so.”
Her Honour accepted that the context of the remark was also significant in terms of Ritson’s hurt to feelings.
As to his reputation, Justice McCallum found the evidence portrayed Ritson “as a competent, honourable police officer who acted with integrity”.
She included an amount for aggravation – due to Burns’ knowledge of the falsity of the imputation and his failure to apologise.
Her Honour also referred to an email sent by Burns to Ritson’s solicitor after he was granted leave to add the “criminal” action against Burns to his claim.
The email said in part:
“Your client Mr Ritson is a deceitful and contemptuous little grub. Did you know Grubs crawl close to the ground Sir? Your client Mr Ritson can go and get stuffed.”
Her Honour decided $7500 was appropriate.
“The overriding aspect of this assessment has been the need to provide consolation for the significant hurt to feelings experienced by Mr Ritson but vindication of reputation is not irrelevant.”
For the plaintiff: Richard Potter instructed by Mitchell Lawyers.
For the defendant: No appearance.
This article was originally published in the Gazette of Law and Journalism, Australia’s leading online media law publication.