The case of Dabrowski v Greeuw serves as a stern reminder to Facebook users that online posts, particularly those targeting an individual or organisation, have real world consequences.
The case centred around a Facebook post made by the defendant, Ms Greeuw, saying ‘separated from Miro Dabrowski after 18 years of suffering domestic violence and abuse. Now fighting the system to keep my children safe’. The plaintiff, Mr Dabrowski, alleged that the post was defamatory.
Mr Dabrowski called several witnesses including his brother (Mr Edward Dabrowski), sister (Ms Barbara Christie) and friends (Ms Christine Hill and Ms Amanda Draper). All four gave evidence that prior to seeing the disputed post, they had no doubts about Mr Dabrowski’s good character. After viewing the post, all the witnesses said they began to question whether there was a different side to Mr Dabrowski and if what was written was true.
What was the background?
The court comprehensively reviewed Mr Dabrowski’s past including an ex parte interim violence restraining order (IVRO) issued on 2 March 2012. Mr Dabrowski denied that he had ever engaged in domestic violence or domestic abuse and that he had never been abusive towards Ms Greeuw.
Ms Greeuw gave evidence of Mr Dabrowski’s conduct over the course of their marriage and alleged that he had periodically shouted at her, physically assaulted her, criticised her and prevented her from leaving the family home.
Did Ms Greeuw publish the post?
Mr Dabrowski was required to prove that the defamatory statement had been published to persons other than himself. Ms Greeuw maintained that she was unfamiliar with Facebook and was under the impression that all of her posts were private. Ms Greeuw alleged that the she did not type the words that were the subject of the action and that they were a complete fabrication created by Mr Dabrowski in a campaign against her.
Mr Dabrowski’s evidence was that all the witnesses alleged having seen the post on their computer screen. The court was satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, Ms Greeuw had typed the words and posted them to her public Facebook page.
Was the post defamatory?
The general test is whether, upon viewing the publication, an ordinary reasonable person would think less of the person who is the subject of the imputations. Any published words are given their ordinary and natural meaning.
What were the alleged imputations?
Mr Dabrowski plead that the post carried several imputations, including that he had subjected Ms Greeuw to domestic violence over 18 years, he had abused her over 18 years and the children were not safe in his presence.
The court held that the post contained all three defamatory imputations. Further, the court was satisfied that the natural and ordinary meaning of the words conveyed those imputations.
What were the defences?
Ms Greeuw raised the defence of justification, which can be established if the alleged imputations are substantially true as a matter of fact. Ms Greeuw was required to prove that, on the balance of probabilities, she was the subject of domestic violence and abuse and that their children were not safe in Mr Dabrowski’s presence.
While Ms Greeuw did provide oral testimony as to instances where she had been physically abused by Mr Dabrowski, the court was not prepared to accept her evidence as credible. The court determined that Ms Greeuw was not a credible witness because of several inconsistencies contained in her written evidence.
The court noted that there was no independent evidence to support Ms Greeuw’s allegations of domestic violence or abuse by Mr Dabrowski towards the children. The court held that Ms Greeuw had not proven on the balance of probabilities that she had been subject to domestic violence and abuse nor that the children were unsafe.
The defence of justification under the Defamation Act and at common law was deemed to have failed. The court found that Mr Dabrowski had been defamed.
What damages were awarded?
The court considered several factors when determining the amount of damages to be awarded to Mr Dabrowski. These factors included the gravity of the allegations, the extent of the publication, the nature and size of the audience and the mode of publication. The court highlighted that defamatory posts on social medical spread easily and are viewable worldwide. The court also considered Ms Greeuw’s conduct including her unwillingness to mediate, her conduct during cross-examination and her denial that she published the material subject to the claim.
The court held that the post had caused Mr Dabrowski personal distress, humiliation and harm to his reputation. The court awarded Mr Dabrowski that sum of $12,500, with interest at the rate of 6% per annum. Ms Greeuw was ordered to pay Mr Dabrowski’s costs.
What’s the take home message?
Social media allows us to communicate more efficiently than ever before, with users often venting their frustrations publicly and in the heat of the moment. This case warns that posts targeting an individual or organisation should be avoided at all costs unless the poster wants to risk much more expensive problems arising later on.