ONSC applies false light privacy tort, awards $300,000 in damages

Justice Kristjanson of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has applied the tort of publicly placing a person in a false light in ordering an abusive husband to pay $300,000 in damages to his estranged spouse.

The defendant waged a campaign against the plaintiff in which, contrary to court orders, he published photos and videos of the couple’s two children to allege the plaintiff was a child abuser and criminal. He also targeted the plaintiff by e-mailing community members links to his content and directing various real-world publications via pamphleting and postering in the UK, where the plaintiff had sought shelter. The campaign was extreme, causing the plaintiff to become ill and fear for her safety.

Justice Kristjanson awarded $150,000 in punitive damages, $50,000 for intentional infliction of mental suffering and $100,000 for breach of privacy. The breach of privacy damages were based jointly on the public disclosure of embarrassing private facts tort and the tort that applies to publicity that places one in a false light. On the false light tort, Justice Kristjanson explained:

170      With these three torts all recognized in Ontario law, the remaining item in the “four-tort catalogue” of causes of action for invasion of privacy is the third, that is, publicity placing the plaintiff in a false light. I hold that this is the case in which this cause of action should be recognized. It is described in § 652E of the Restatement as follows:
Publicity Placing Person in False Light
One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if
(a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and
(b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.
171      I adopt this statement of the elements of the tort. I also note the clarification in the Restatement‘s commentary on this passage to the effect that, while the publicity giving rise to this cause of action will often be defamatory, defamation is not required. It is enough for the plaintiff to show that a reasonable person would find it highly offensive to be publicly misrepresented as they have been. The wrong is in publicly representing someone, not as worse than they are, but as other than they are. The value at stake is respect for a person’s privacy right to control the way they present themselves to the world.
172      It also bears noting this cause of action has much in common with the tort of public disclosure of private facts. They share the common elements of 1) publicity, which is 2) highly offensive to a reasonable person. The principal difference between the two is that public disclosure of private facts involves true statements, while “false light” publicity involves false or misleading claims. (Two further elements also distinguish the two causes of action: “false light” invasion of privacy requires that the defendant know or be reckless to the falsity of the information, while public disclosure of private facts involves a requirement that there be no legitimate public concern justifying the disclosure.)
173      It follows that one who subjects another to highly offensive publicity can be held responsible whether the publicity is true or false. This indeed, is precisely why the tort of publicity placing a person a false light should be recognized. It would be absurd if a defendant could escape liability for invasion of privacy simply because the statements they have made about another person are false.
174      Moreover, it is likely that in the course of creating publicity placing a person in a false light, the wrongdoer will happen to include true, but private, facts about the person whose privacy is invaded. In this case, for instance, the defendant has publicized falsehoods about the plaintiff, but he has also publicly aired private facts about her present living situation with the children and her parents (including videos of their home) and details of access visits which is a true, but private matter.

This is the first time the false light tort has been recognized in Canada. Justice Kristjanson said the $20,000 cap on damages recognized in Jones v Tsige “may not apply” to it, though also suggested a larger award was warranted on the facts.

Justice Kristjanson also issued a 33 paragraph order that provided for broad-ranging permanent injunctive relief and made the defendant’s right of access to his children dependent on compliance. (The trial of the plaintiff’s action proceeded together with a family law trial.)

Yenovkian v Gulian, 2019 CarswellOnt 21614, 2019 ONSC 7279.

Federal Court of Appeal reverses certification of privacy class action

On June 24th, the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the certification of a number of causes of action in a class action that claims damages for the sending of a letter that identified the sender as the “Marihuana Medical Access Program.”

The intended recipients were, in fact, individuals authorized to possess medical marihuana. They claim the letter disclosed this fact and exposed them to various harms. The Federal Court certified the action last July based on a finding that the claim set out a number of valid causes of action.

The Federal Court of Appeal allowed the action to proceed based on claim alleging that the government’s negligence (and breach of confidence) caused the following damage: costs incurred to prevent home invasion, costs incurred for other personal security, damage to reputation, loss of employment, reduced capacity for employment, and out of pocket expenses. The Court of Appeal affirmed that a claim for such damages is actionable and “not entirely speculative.”

The Federal Court of Appeal overturned certification of three other causes of action:

  • It held that the pleading did not establish a valid claim of contractual breach because it set out no exchange of promises backed by valuable consideration. The existence of an enforceable contractual contract was also not apparent in the circumstances given the arrangement between government and the representative plaintiff was invited and structured by statute.
  • It held that the pleading did not establish a valid claim for public disclosure of private facts because the pleadings did not support a finding that the government “published” private facts: “…the concept of ‘publicity’ means that ‘the matter is made public, by communicating it to the public at large, or to so many persons that the matter must be regarded as substantially certain to become one of public knowledge.'”
  • It held that the pleading did not establish a valid claim for intrusion upon seclusion because it did not support a finding of the required state of mind (i.e., intent or recklessness): “At best, the material facts pleaded support the notion that an isolated administrative error was made.”

The Court’s limitation of the claim to one based on negligence is significant because it precludes access to “moral damages.” While the Court said the pleaded special damages were not so speculative to disallow the claim, it’s questionable whether the actual damages suffered by members of the class amount to much at all.

Canada v John Doe, 2016 FCA 191.

BC class action alleging vicarious liability for employee’s snooping to proceed

Yesterday the Court of Appeal for British Columbia held that a class action alleging vicarious liability for breach of the British Columbia Privacy Act should not be struck.

The claim is based on an allegation that an ICBC employee improperly accessed the personal information of about 65 ICBC customers. The Court dismissed ICBC’s argument that the Privacy Act only contemplates direct liability because its statutory tort rests on wilful misconduct. The Court reasoned that a requirement of deliberate wrongdoing is not incompatible with vicarious liability.

ICBC also raised a seemingly dangerous policy question for a data breach defendant: “Should liability lie against a public body for the wrongful conduct of its employee, in these circumstances?” The Court said this question should be answered based on a full evidentiary record.

While allowing the vicarious liability claim to proceed, the Court held that the plaintiff could not found a claim on an alleged breach of the safeguarding provision in British Columbia’s public sector privacy act. It did consider whether to recognize a common law duty to abide by the safeguarding provision, but held that it should not do so based on policy grounds, including the need to defer to the comprehensive administrative remedial regime provided for by the legislature.

Ari v Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, 2015 BCCA 468 (CanLII).

Case Report – Court finds constructive dismissal for engaging in workplace surveillance

On December 15th, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that an employee was constructively dismissed because her employer installed a video camera in her office on questionable grounds and recorded images surreptitiously for about nine months before she discovered the camera and abruptly quit.

Prudent employers and their counsel have long been cautious about the enforcement of employee privacy rights through constructive dismissal claims, claims in which an employee alleges a fundamental breach of an express or implied term of an employment contract based on a privacy violation. This case, however, is the first I’m aware of in which such a claim has been successfully made.

While significant in illustrating the risk to employers who take a casual approach to employee privacy, the outcome is not surprising given the facts. Most significantly, the employer installed the camera to address an undisputed theft problem, but did not suspect the plaintiff. The only reason it had for installing the camera in her office was that it thought the suspects would go to the plaintiff’s office to “review the loot,” a suggestion the Court said was “preposterous.” The plaintiff also appears to have discovered the camera when she visited a supervisor’s office and saw a live feed of her office, raising a serious question about use and security of the images.

The Court did not mention whether the employer had a policy incorporated into the employment contract that gave it license to conduct surreptitious monitoring of its workplace or anything about the plaintiff’s expectation of privacy, but even a well-drafted and properly incorporated policy might not have given rise to an effective defence on these facts.

Colwell v. Cornerstone Properties Inc., 2008 CanLII 66139 (ON S.C.).