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Judge awards highest ever defamation damages

By Steven | January 29, 2009

This news seems to have slipped under the media radar: just before Christmas the courts handed down the highest defamation damages award in NZ’s history.

Cooper J awarded Michael Stiassny and his firm $920,000 damages against Vince Siemer for his long-running attacks on Stiassny, including $900,000 for defamation. (To recap: those are the attacks that led to the injunction that led to the contempt of court cases that led to Siemer being fined and jailed for breaching the injunction and then let out of jail to argue that he should have been given a jury trial. Judgment’s still pending on that last one).

Those contempt cases also led to a huge award of costs – more than $180,000 – against Siemer (joining many other costs awards against Siemer). He didn’t pay them. So Potter J debarred him from defending Staissny’s defamation case.

So it can’t have been much of a defamation trial. You had the country’s most famous media lawyer, Julian Miles QC, arguing one side, and on the other…. nothing. There’s a huge hole in the judgment where the discussion of defences would usually come. Were the attacks true? Were they simply honest opinion? Were they protected by qualified privilege? The judge didn’t have to decide. 

At one point Cooper J said: “there is no substance in the allegations that Mr Siemer makes”. The judge really had no place saying that. Siemer has insisted all along that his criticisms are true. He’d been prevented from putting forward evidence to prove them. The judge didn’t know what that evidence might have been.

And that’s surely got to give anyone pause for thought. Nearly a million dollars in damages awarded against someone who was denied the right to present evidence in his own defence. That’s in addition to being sent to jail for contempt for saying things he continues to insist are true, and which have never been disproved, in breach of an injunction he believes was wrongly imposed.

The picture is different from Stiassny’s perspective, of course. Stiassny would say he has been subject to years of false and damaging invective from Siemer, has been forced to spend more than a million dollars on the defamation/breach of contract lawsuit, has won almost every point he argued, and has been granted costs awards in his favour, but Siemer has refused to pay them – and worse, has flouted the court’s injunction and continued to spread his poison. Why should he be put to the expense of a full trial when Siemer won’t pay for the costs of the pre-trial skirmishes – many of which Siemer initiated?

Still, this is a whopping award. It includes aggravated damages ($150,000) and exemplary damages ($25,000).

Not surprisingly, Julian Miles argued that the case was broadly analogous to two other giant NZ defamation awards: $675,000 in the Ray Columbus case and the eventual $650,000 in Quinn, though these involved national publications; Siemer’s statements were made on a short-lived billboard, some fairly obscure websites, and in letters, stickers and notices.

Also not surprisingly, Miles seems to have made no mention of the dozens of other defamation awards, many of them for fairly serious defamations much more widely published than Siemer’s, that came in well under $100,000.

Not surprisingly once again, the entire judgment feels very one-sided. It’s hard to believe that this sum would have been awarded if the case had been fully argued. (And that’s putting aside the question of whether Siemer would have been able to establish a defence). Whatever you think of Vince (and I’ve been critical of him), it’s also hard to be comfortable about the circumstances in which this award was made.

[For completeness, I should note that Terry Quinn was originally awarded $1.5 million by a jury for two defamatory programmes, but the damages bill was reduced to a total of $650,000 on appeal]. 

Topics: Defamation | 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “Judge awards highest ever defamation damages”

  1. lyndon Says:
    January 30th, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Speaking as a member of the public: what the hell?

    How does a judge think that’s okay?

  2. PRESS RELEASE: Penny Bright ‘Anti-corruption campaigner’:”Is the Solicitor-General maliciously abusing his position, as the second-highest ‘lawyer in the land’ by persecuting/ prosecuting Vince Siemer (AGAIN) for ‘conte Says:
    June 9th, 2011 at 8:12 am

    […] hearing brought by Michael Stiassny, which resulted in the highest ever award against a defendant. Lawyer Steven Price blogs about media law and ethics in New Zealand Judge awards highest ever […]

  3. NZ JUDICIAL CORRUPTION AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS? What EXACTLY did Vince Siemer say about Michael Stiassny that was ‘anti-semitic’ or constituted ‘vile racist abuse’? SUPREME COURT JUDGMENT 3 June 2011 (SC 49/2011) [2011] NZSC 63 &laqu Says:
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