Understanding defamation law, especially when considering the potential damages, is no small feat. The nuances and complexities can be overwhelming, yet having a clear comprehension of what the damages entail is invaluable for plaintiffs and defendants alike. In Ontario, defamation law encompasses three key types of damages: Aggravated, Special, and Punitive Damages. In this blog post, we dissect each one of them to provide a clearer understanding of their implications.
Aggravated Damages: When Malice Leads to Greater Harm
In the realm of defamation law, aggravated damages hold a distinct place. These damages, although compensatory in nature, rely heavily on the presence of ‘actual malice’ on the part of the defendant. Actual malice, an important legal concept, signifies that the defendant knowingly made false statements or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
The courts will scrutinize the defendant’s conduct throughout the history of the case when determining the existence of malice. The crucial aspect to consider here is that this malice may inflate the injury inflicted upon the plaintiff, thereby justifying the awarding of aggravated damages. Interestingly, the existence of malice can be established based on the conduct of the defendant or their counsel, even if this conduct transpires post-publication.
A distinctive characteristic of aggravated damages is that they are meant to compensate for any increased harm resulting from the defendant’s conduct that has been “particularly high-handed or oppressive.” The court may consider whether the defendant’s actions intensified the plaintiff’s mental distress or humiliation, or if they widened the scope of the libel to ensure maximum publicity of the defamation.
However, this increased harm is a cornerstone for awarding aggravated damages, since their purpose is not punitive. They serve as a means to compensate the plaintiff for the additional “salt that the relevant defendant has rubbed in the wound” caused by the libel. Therefore, it is essential that the aggravating conduct be known to the plaintiff for an award of aggravated damages to be grounded upon it.
While awarding aggravated damages, the court must also avoid ‘double counting.’ In general, the quantum of aggravated damages should be lower than the quantum of general damages. This differentiation prevents the overcompensation of the plaintiff. It’s also important to note that corporations generally do not qualify for aggravated damages according to Canadian law.
Special Damages: The Challenge of Proving Pecuniary Loss
In contrast to general or aggravated damages, special damages focus explicitly on the pecuniary losses that the plaintiff incurs as a result of the defamation. However, proving these damages and drawing a clear line of causation between the defamation and the alleged financial losses can present unique challenges.
Special damages must be specifically pleaded and proven in court, and are not simply presumed. They require an exhaustive examination of the plaintiff’s financial affairs to establish the actual impact of the libel and separate it from other potential causes of loss.
Although special damages are infrequently claimed, they can be evidenced by a general downturn in business, a loss of patronage, or lost custom. However, establishing this connection between the defamation and the loss is often difficult. As a result, plaintiffs may find their only recovery lies in the award of general damages.
Punitive Damages: A Tool for Deterrence and Denunciation
Distinct from other damages, punitive damages are extraordinary measures reserved for cases where the defendant’s conduct has been exceptionally malicious, oppressive, and high-handed. Unlike aggravated or special damages, the objective of punitive damages isn’t compensation but punishment and deterrence.
It’s here that a delicate balance must be struck. Punitive damages should only be considered when the combined award of general and aggravated damages doesn’t suffice to achieve the objectives of retribution, deterrence, and denunciation. In assessing whether punitive damages are warranted, the court will take into account several factors, such as the defendant’s intent, the duration of the misconduct, and any attempts at concealment.
The defendant’s post-publication conduct can also weigh in on the decision, although care should be taken to avoid a chilling effect on legitimate free speech. It’s important that while punishing the wrongdoer, the court does not deter free and honest discussion.
A Final Word
Defamation law in Ontario is comprehensive, addressing various aspects and impacts of libelous conduct. Aggravated damages offer additional compensation for the heightened harm due to malicious actions, special damages pertain to direct pecuniary losses, and punitive damages serve as a severe penalty and deterrent for particularly egregious misconduct.
This knowledge is invaluable for anyone navigating defamation claims, as it shapes not only the lawsuit’s course but also guides the conduct of the involved parties throughout the trial and beyond. It’s a reminder that our words carry weight, and misuse can lead to severe legal repercussions.
However, it’s important to remember that this blog post is meant to provide a general overview and does not constitute legal advice. Defamation cases are intricate and unique, requiring professional legal counsel to navigate effectively. Always seek legal advice for specific circumstances.
Example 1: Blanchette v. Mullins
In the case of Blanchette v. Mullins, the plaintiff, James Blanchette, won a defamation lawsuit against the defendant, Maurice Timothy Mullins. The lawsuit was instigated after a souring of their business relationship, wherein Mullins, Blanchette’s former partner in a paint and body shop, began disseminating over 16 defamatory letters about Blanchette to various individuals and institutions.
The court concluded that the content and nature of these letters were defamatory, derogatory, and scandalous. The letters contained serious, unsubstantiated allegations, including claims that Blanchette was associated with the Hells Angels and was using their shared business location to sell drugs on the gang’s behalf. They also claimed that Blanchette was incapacitated due to severe medical and mental health problems.
The court found these statements entirely unjustified and awarded Blanchette damages on several counts. He received $25,000 in general damages for defamation, recognizing the harm to his reputation. On top of this, the court awarded him $10,000 in aggravated damages, highlighting the malicious intent behind the defamatory actions.
Furthermore, Blanchette was awarded $22,292 in special damages, which cover tangible, financial losses related to the defamation. Finally, he was also awarded $3,949, which was owed to him from previous litigation costs. All told, the court’s judgement comprehensively compensated Blanchette for the damages he sustained as a result of the defamation.
Example 2: Myers v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
In the 1999 case of Myers v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the court outlined the principles of defamation law, particularly focusing on the types of damages that can be awarded: compensatory (general and special), aggravated, and punitive.
- General compensatory damages are presumed once a defamation claim is established, and no common law defences apply. These damages don’t require proof of actual injury and are designed to cover the presumed natural consequences of the defamatory actions and the typical harm resulting from such defamation, including damage to the plaintiff’s reputation and emotional distress. The quantification of these damages doesn’t have a formula, and it can be influenced by factors like the conduct and character of both parties, the impact of the defamation on the plaintiff, and the nature and extent of the publication. Malicious intent can also increase the damages awarded.
- The scope of the defamation’s distribution and the nature of the audience it reaches also play a significant role in determining the damages. Greater circulation warrants a higher award, and the potential impact of the defamation on the targeted audience is considered.
- The reputation and influence of the defendant are crucial in assessing damages. If the defendant is a reputable figure or a credible media source, the plaintiff’s damage is considered greater.
- The plaintiff’s reputation and standing also matter. Defamatory statements cause more harm to individuals with good reputations, especially professionals. If the defamation casts doubt on their behaviour, integrity, or competence, it’s considered a serious matter warranting substantial damages.
- The nature of the defamatory remark matters, too. Defamation based on distorted facts is considered more damaging than entirely fabricated accusations, as the former requires extensive explanation to correct, and its subtleties might be missed.
- The plaintiff’s reaction to the defamation and their ability to overcome its effects can also influence the damages. The courts may consider any personal suffering or the effect of the defamation on the plaintiff’s life.
Aggravated and punitive damages are more controversial and restrictive. A finding of malice is necessary for awarding either of these. Aggravated damages aim to compensate for increased mental distress and humiliation caused by the defendant’s outrageous and malicious conduct. Punitive damages aim to punish the defendant and serve as a deterrent for such behaviour in the future. They are only used in cases where compensatory damages are deemed insufficient to express the court’s repugnance at the defendant’s conduct, and they can achieve some rational purpose.