Case Law, Australia: O’Reilly v Edgar, Fact free Facebook Posts, $250,000 damages – Gabrielle Hunter

24 03 2019

In the case of O’Reilly v Edgar ([2019] QSC 24) the Supreme Court of Queensland awarded Kelvin O’Reilly, the CEO of a go-kart racing organisation, $270 658.71 in damages, including aggravated damages, for defamatory posts by a Facebook troll.

Justice Thomas Bradley (pic) deemed a high award of damages necessary to compensate the plaintiff for the extremely damaging nature of the statements posted on social media.

This damage was exacerbated by the improper conduct of the defendant, Peter Edgar, who continued to publish scandalous and unfounded comments throughout the two-year proceedings.

The defendant’s conduct was equally egregious inside the courtroom, where he mocked and made further allegations against the plaintiff while continuing to assert the truth of his online posts.

The award of damages was accompanied by an injunction with Justice Bradley considering the effect of social media where it is “impossible to track the scandal, to know what quarters the poison may reach”.

Goading and go-karting 

From 2015 to 2018, Edgar – an invalid pensioner and avid go-kart enthusiast – posted a series of increasingly damaging statements concerning O’Reilly, who is the CEO of Karting Australia.

The claims made against O’Reilly in these statements included imputations of managerial incompetence, legal misconduct, sexual harassment and enabling the sexual abuse of children.

The series of 10 Facebook posts were published on the go-kart fan pages Edgar managed.

The first two posts were made on “Go-Kart Kid” which had 332 members before it was taken down by Facebook. The other eight posts were made on another Facebook page, “Federation of Australian Racing Karters Union,” and at the time of the trial there were over 1,400 members of this group.

Both of these pages were public Facebook groups, accessible to any member of the public with a Facebook account.

Fact-check

At trial, Edgar said the statements he made about O’Reilly were true and that he had a right to share the information as he considered himself a “reporter”.   

His defence was bluntly rejected by Justice Bradley, who described Edgar’s submissions as a “vast web of fantasy”.

It was found that Mr Edgar was, at best, uninterested in checking the truth or falsity of the matters he posted and that a “modicum of diligence … would have revealed the foolishness of his conclusions”.

Edgar believed that he had a duty to provide his audience with updates of about the sport of go-kart racing and that he was only reporting information he had been told.

Bradley observed that disseminating a rumour does as much damage to a reputation as if you had stated it as a fact.

Publication

Edgar’s defence included a plea under s.33 Defamation Act, Qld that if O’Reilly did suffer any damage to his reputation the harm was inconsequential or trivial.

The court considered the serious nature of the imputations, O’Reilly’s position as CEO of Karting Australia and the platform for publication.

The information posted on Facebook makes it available to anyone with access to the internet and an account on the platform.

Additionally, the publications were of relevance to people with an interest in go-kart racing in Australia, an area where O’Reilly has a good reputation.

These circumstances make it likely that the imputations would be republished to an unknown number of persons and cause considerable damage to O’Reilly’s personal and professional reputation.

O’Reilly said he had “never felt so hopeless or helpless … as I have felt in the last three years at the hands of this man on this Facebook page”.

Hurtful and hateful

Edgar represented himself at the trial. Justice Bradley characterised his cross-examination of the plaintiff for three hours as “callous … sarcastic … self-justifying … [and at times] aggressive”.

His questions danced around the specific words from his own “reports” that bore the defamatory sting. Edgar also made further unfounded allegations of misconduct against O’Reilly.

Edgar also persisted with publishing “hurtful and hateful” comments throughout the proceedings. This betrayed an embittered attitude toward O’Reilly which factored into the award for aggravated damages.

The judge took Edgar to be someone who was prepared to, “talk a big game when alone in front of his computer screen” but his conduct at trial revealed his “personal cowardice”.

He awarded a total of general and aggravated damages of $250,000 plus $20,658.71 interest and made orders restraining further publication or republications of a similar nature.

Appearances:
Plaintiff: P.J. McCafferty QC, instructed by Bartley Cohen acting as Town Agents for Simpson & Philips
Defendant: Appeared on his own behalf

This post was originally published in the Gazette of Law and Journalism, Australia’s leading online media law publication.


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27 03 2019
Steer clear of costly social media stings | reporting4work

[…] was highlighted recently in a Queensland defamation case that saw an expensive outcome for the […]

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