A Melbourne businessman is suing Google for defamation in a case which could have huge repercussions for anyone who has reason to start proceedings against a company or individual.

Google search results place innocent shooting victim among renowned gangsters

In 2004, amid a series of underworld killings, Mr Milorad Trkulja was shot in the back by an unknown gunman. He was an innocent victim of criminals who couldn't shoot straight.

After Mr Trkulja recovered, he was shocked to find that whenever his name or the phrase "Melbourne underworld criminals" was searched in Google, his picture would appear, alongside those of well-known gangsters. This continued for years, despite Mr Trkulja's appeals to Google to disassociate his name and image from the crooks.

Trkulja sues Google for defamation

In 2012, Mr Trkulja sued Google for defamation and won in the Victorian Supreme Court, after claiming that the Google search results were damaging his reputation. (See Trkulja v Google Inc LLC & Anor [2012] VSC 533.)

Google appealed and won four years later in the Victorian Court of Appeal. Unhappy with this decision, Mr Trkulja then took the matter to the High Court.

Google: "irrational for people to link Trkulja with convicted criminals"

In 2018, Mr Trkulja's legal team argued that his reputation was damaged whenever his name was searched, due to his picture appearing alongside those of convicted criminals like Chopper Read, Mick Gatto and Carl Williams.

Google argued that it had not published the allegedly defamatory search results, that the search results were not defamatory of Mr Trkulja, and that it was entitled to immunity. Google stated that it was irrational to think that having Mr Trkulja's image alongside those of convicted criminals would make a person perceive that he too was a criminal.

Google's lawyers pointed out that images of Marlon Brando also appeared in the search results, but people wouldn't think the actor was actually a mafia godfather.

The judge disagreed, saying that if someone searched for information on Melbourne underworld figures and Trkulja's image or name appeared, that person could "rationally suppose" there was a link between the search query and the result.

High Court allows legal action for defamation to proceed

In its summary, the High Court said:

The Court held that it was evident that at least some of the search results complained of had the capacity to convey to an ordinary reasonable person viewing the search results that the appellant was somehow associated with the Melbourne criminal underworld, and, therefore, that the search results had the capacity to convey one or more of the defamatory imputations alleged.

While the matter is yet to be resolved in the courts, this High Court decision could prove a watershed for others considering suing Google or other companies or individuals for defamation.

Anneka Frayne
Defamation law
Stacks Law Firm

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