Walden v Danieletto  QDC 221
This case concerned an appeal against the decision of the Magistrate’s court to dismiss the appalment’s claim for damages for defamation.
The respondent, who was the body corporate manager of the unit block, during an extraordinary general meeting in the presence of other unit holders stated that a voting paper for the lot of which the appellant was an owner was not admitted because the lot was ‘un-financial’. The statement of the minutes of the meeting with the same effect was later sent to all members of the body corporate by the respondent. The appellant notified the respondent after the meeting that he has paid all arrears, but the respondent advised that payment had not yet been received in the body corporate’s account. The alleged imputations of this statement were that the plaintiff was a delinquent payer, who could not afford to pay his body corporate levies and who had financial difficulties.
- PUBLICATIONS WERE NOT DEFAMATORY OF THE APPELLANT
The court accepted the respondent’s submission that the law is to the effect that mere assertion of an unpaid debt is not defamatory. The legal test for whether a published matter is capable of being defamatory is what ordinary reasonable people would understand by the matter complained of: ‘It is possible that some people could jump to wild theories but the hypothetical right thinking person would not have’. The court held that any reasonable person would conclude that the statements complained of by the appellant amounted to no more than a correct assertion, that at the date of the meeting the records of the body corporate indicated that the levies for the appellant’s lot were unpaid, which is incapable of bearing any meaning defamatory of the applicant.
- PUBLICATIONS WERE UNLIKELY TO RESULT IN A REAL POSSIBILITY OF HARM TO THE APPELLANT’S REPUTATION
The court accepted the respondent’s submission that the learned Magistrate, relying on Smith v Lucht, correctly categorised the harm caused to the appellant as hurt feelings, rather than reputational harm. The court held that an imputation that the appellant is temporary unable to pay corporate levies ‘is unlikely to result in a real possibility of harm to his reputation regardless of how much it subjectively upset him’.
- THE DEFENCE OF A QUALIFIED PRIVILEGE DID APPLY
The defence of qualified privilege is governed by s 30(1) of the Defamation Act which provides that it is a defence for the publication of defamatory matter to the recipient if the defendant proves that the matter was published in the course of giving to the recipient information which he or she had an interest or apparent interest in and that the conduct of the defendant in publishing that matter was reasonable in the circumstances. The court accepted the respondent’s submission that the members of the body corporate clearly had an interest in having information about which lots were capable of casting votes and thus the statement as to the appellant being unfinancial was made in the course of giving them information on that subject and was reasonable.
- ACCESSING DAMAGES
The Magistrate accessed damages as being $1,500. His Honour noted that the present circumstances were at the “very bottom end” of defamation, considering the nature of the material and the audience receiving it. the Magistrate observed that, considering that the appellant had continued to live in the body corporate for some time after the alleged defamation, other body corporate members may have been poorly disposed towards the plaintiff for reasons nothing to do with the commentary at the meeting about being unfinancial. The appeal court stated that consideration of the correctness of the award of damages is a somewhat academic exercise, given all stated above, but for the sake of an argument concluded that the Magistrate was correct in assessing the damages.
The appeal was dismissed with costs.
The conclusion from this case seems to be that a simple statement as to whether a person has or has not paid off his debt is not capable of bearing defamatory meaning. The legal test for whether a published matter is capable of being defamatory is what ordinary reasonable people would understand by the matter complained. The availability of the qualified privilege defence and the assessment of damages depends on the audience receiving the publication in question.