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.

BCCA – No privacy claim against lawyer

On January 9th, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia affirmed the dismissal of a claim against a lawyer that was based in part on his service of application materials and in part on his conveyance of information about the plaintiff in a casual conversation with another lawyer.

The application that became the subject of the claim was made in an earlier family law proceeding. It was for production of financial documentation from the plaintiff relating to seven companies in which he had an interest.

The defendant represented the plaintiff’s wife. He served the companies with application materials (a notice plus affidavit) without redaction and in an unsealed envelope. Apparently his process server left the materials with two unrelated companies in an attempt to affect service. The plaintiff also argued that the defendant should have crafted his application materials to protect the plaintiff’s privacy – serving notices “containing only information relevant to the particular relief that might concern each company.”

The Court held that the impugned action was deemed not to be an invasion of privacy based on section 2(3)(b) of the British Columbia Privacy Act, which states that the publication of a matter is not a violation of privacy if “the publication was privileged in accordance with the rules of law relating to defamation.” The defendant, the Court explained, was acting in the course of his duty to his client, and occasion protected by absolute privilege.

The “casual conversation claim” arose from a discussion the defendant had with another lawyer during a break in discovery in another case. The defendant said he represented a woman whose former husband had sold a business in Alberta for $15 million and that the couple had three young children. Another person who was present came to believe the defendant was speaking about the plaintiff.

The Court affirmed the trial judge’s finding that the plaintiff failed to prove the information disclosed was private and subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy. More significantly, it affirmed an obiter finding that that the defendant’s disclosure was not wilful.

Duncan v Lessing, 2018 BCCA 9 (CanLII).

 

No privacy breach for reporting what’s on the court’s record

On August 10th, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed a privacy claim brought against the publishers of The Lawyer’s Weekly for reporting on the plaintiff’s involvement in a small claims court proceeding. The Court adopted the following defendant submission:

Further, recent developments in the common law regarding invasion of privacy have fallen well short of the cause of action asserted by Bresnark. On the facts of this case, there is no ‘intrusion upon seclusion’, nor even any disclosure of ‘private facts’. Indeed, the Article is wholly based on public court proceedings and the facts and findings disclosed on the record in those cases. Therefore, the cause of action asserted in paragraph 4 of the statement of claim should be struck as disclosing no cause of action. It is plain and obvious that it has no chance of success.

The Court also dismissed a defamation claim as statute-barred.

Bresnark v Thomson Reuters Canada Limited, 2016 ONSC 5105 (CanLII).