In the case of BeautyFULL CMC Pty Ltd & Ors v Hayes  QDC 1111, the Brisbane District Court (Court) awarded $82,500 in damages to a beauty clinic after an Instagram story posted by a former employee was found by the Court to be defamatory.
This judgment represents the changing landscape of defamation liability and highlights the dangers of social media use for both individuals and businesses.
The dispute arose after the clinic posted a photograph of their co-founder, Margaret Scruton, in her work uniform with the caption “Dr Margaret serving during COVID-19” on its Instagram account. The former employee then re-shared the post on her Instagram story, a format typically only shared and visible for 24 hours, claiming the photograph was “fake”. She asserted in her Instagram story that she was not “naming and shaming”, “but when I see a company upload a FAKE photo that a medical practitioner is going to work on the frontline during the COVID-19 crisis, it's disgusting and disrespectful to the people who are actually putting their lives at risk to save others”.
The truth defence
The former employee's lawyers argued the defence of truth, namely that the assertion in the post was true. However, they did not provide evidence at the trial. The Court instead accepted that Ms Scruton was indeed a registered general practitioner, and was providing medical services at a GP clinic at the time of the post, including referring patients for COVID-19 testing, and this constituted working “on the frontline”.
The Court's decision
The Court held that the former employee “almost certainly” had knowledge of Ms Scruton's typical work practices and found that the former employee's Instagram story was intended to name and shame and was designed to cause hurt and distress. The Court held that the former employee was motivated by “unexplained anger and resentment” towards the clinic, and her Instagram story was “intentionally false” with no basis. The Court also accepted that the clinic suffered a loss of business reputation as a result of the defamatory publication.
This case highlights the issues and potential pitfalls relating to social media use and activity for both individuals and businesses, and the willingness of courts to find that defamation has occurred regardless of how many people see the defamatory post.
In this case, the former employee had 1,844 followers, so the potential for a wider viewership was relatively small. Further, the fact that the Instagram story was only available for 24 hours shows that an offending post doesn't need to be up for long to cause damage.
The outcome of this case demonstrates that defamation awards are not limited to large media outlets and famous individuals – small businesses or individuals who feel their reputation has been damaged as a result of defamatory posts on social media are also entitled to substantial damages.
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