Defamatory Facebook comments cost Abbotsford woman $67,500

Judge rules that a local teacher was the target of 'thoughtless and reckless' behaviour

An Abbotsford woman has been ordered to pay more than $65,000 after posting defamatory Facebook comments that suggested her neighbour – a middle school music teacher – was a pedophile who was videotaping her children.

The ruling, made last week in B.C. Supreme Court in Chilliwack, ordered Katherine Van Nes to pay $50,000 in general damages, $15,000 in punitive damages and $2,500 in nuisance damages to Doug Pritchard.

The lawsuit filed by Pritchard stemmed from a dispute that began in 2011 after Van Nes and her husband installed a large fish pond with two waterfalls along their rear property line.

According to court documents, Pritchard complained to Van Nes that the waterfalls were keeping him and his wife awake at night, but no measures were taken to reduce the noise.

The documents state that a series of nuisance incidents, on behalf of Van Nes and her family, then followed. For example, Pritchard’s wife testified in court that she had made 24 complaints to the city about the Van Nes’ dog wandering onto their property and defecating.

The city suggested they document the issues, and Pritchard’s wife took a few photos and videos of the waterfalls and of the dog being in their yard.

She had also hung a decorative mirror from the eaves at the rear of the house that was intended only as ornamentation.

In June 2014, Van Nes posted on her Facebook page two photos of her neighbours’ backyard, saying that they had mirrors hanging outside of their home and that Pritchard was videotaping her kids “24/7.”

The court documents emphasize that at no time did Pritchard or his wife install video surveillance equipment on their property.

Over the next 21 hours, posts by Van Nes and responses from her Facebook friends expanded on her initial comment, saying that Pritchard was “creepy,” “a freak,” “a nutter,” “a pedo,” “a peeper” and more.

One of Van Nes’ friends sent an email to Pritchard’s principal, saying students were in possible danger because the school “has a potential pedophile as a staff member.”

Pritchard, who has two sons of his own, testified in court that these actions had a dramatic impact on him, including that he felt he had lost the trust of parents and students and that he felt “constantly guarded” in his interactions with students.

He cancelled the rock and jazz bands at the school, and reduced his commitment to the choir by 50 per cent.

“He has lost his love of teaching; he no longer finds it fun, and he wishes he had the means to get out of the profession,” stated Justice Anthony Saunders in his written ruling.

Van Nes deleted the posts from her Facebook page 27 hours after she made the initial comment, but Saunders said the damage had already been done, as the messages were shared from friend to friend and could not be deleted from their pages.

“Ms. Van Nes ought to have known that her defamatory statements would spread, not only through Facebook,” the judge stated in finding her liable.

He said Van Nes, whose defence was that she was simply “venting” about her issues with the Pritchards, kept the online conversation going by responding to her friends’ comments, which “added fuel to the fire.”

She had 2,000 Facebook friends.

Saunders said the seriousness of Van Nes’ actions cannot be overstated. He said her behaviour was “thoughtless” and “reckless.”

“An accusation of pedophiliac behaviour must be the single most effective means of destroying a teacher’s reputation and career, not to mention the devastating effect on their life and individual indignity,” Saunders said.

The judge also ruled that Van Nes must turn off the waterfalls on her property between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. daily.

Watch what you say on Facebook, advises lawyer

An Abbotsford lawyer says he hopes that a case last week in which a local woman was ordered to pay $65,000 for defamatory Facebook comments will cause people to think more carefully about what they post online.

“I think this case sends a strong message to let people know that they need to take care with the words that they use about their friends, neighbours, colleagues and co-workers,” said Doug Lester (in photo), a partner at RDM Lawyers who practises civil litigation.

Lester said the monetary ruling was higher than he typically sees for defamation suits involving individuals, but he felt it was appropriate given the number of people to whom the messages were distributed and the damage caused to the plaintiff.

But although the instances of such commenting will only grow with more widespread use of social media, Lester doesn’t expect it to necessarily result in more lawsuits.

He said the average cost for an individual to take a defamation case through the courts is $20,000 to $65,000.

“More often than not, people who have been victims can’t afford justice.”

Lester said a more typical resolution is for the victim to send a letter to the perpetrator, requesting that their actions cease and that they apologize.

“That usually satisfies the victim … All they usually want is for the record to be set straight,” he said.