Stephens Lawyers & Consultants*

Publication of defamatory comments on websites, social media and business networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn can cause devastating harm to both personal and business reputation and business losses.  Some of the defamatory material published is of such an extreme nature that it has been described as being “generally without any basis and driven not by mere malice but some kind of internet “road rage”[i] 

Recent awards of damages by courts for defamation continue to serve as a warning to all that care must be taken to ensure that there is a factual basis for what is published.  In the recent decision of Rush v Nationwide News Pty Limited (No 7) [2019][ii] the Federal Court rejected the Respondent’s defence of justification on the basis of, inter alia, lack of credibility of its principal witness and failure to corroborate the principal witness’ evidence, and awarded actor Geoffrey Rush almost $2.9 million in damages in respect of three publications of Nationwide News which were found to be seriously defamatory.  On appeal by Nationwide News, the Full Federal Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the Federal Court’s damages award – which included an award of $850,000 for compensatory/non-economic loss including aggravated damages.[iii]

Individuals who seek to hide their identity by making anonymous posts and using fake names when posting defamatory material on-line are at risk of being identified by the use of court ordered pre-trial discovery from the social media and telecommunications companies and the use of IT forensic experts.

Compensatory Damages

A defamed party can claim compensatory damages for non-economic loss (general damages) and also any economic loss (special damages) sustained by reason of the publication of the defamatory material. In the case of non-economic loss, there is a cap on the maximum amount of damages that can be awarded for individual defamation proceedings, which currently is $421,000[iv] . However, as seen in the recent case of Rush v Nationwide News Pty Limited, this cap does not apply if the court is satisfied that the circumstances of the publication of the defamatory matter to which the proceedings relate warrant an award of aggravated damages  There is no limitation on the amount of economic loss that can be awarded by the courts.

This update provides a review of the damages awarded in recent on-line defamation cases (during the period July 2019 to September  2020) and some of the factors taken into account by courts in awarding damages. 

[For a review of damages awarded in on-line defamation cases during the period 2015 to June 2019 see Stephens Lawyers & Consultants’  ‘Defamation for On-line Defamation – Recent Cases [updated October 2019]’ ]

Cases July 2019 – September 2020

Webster v Brewster (No. 3) [2020] FCA 1343

Date of Decision: 22 September 2020

Court: Federal Court of Australia

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff, a Nationals Member of Parliament, sued the Respondent over a series of Facebook posts and videos made in April and May 2020.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The Court held that “the need for vindication of reputation is the most substantial consideration in damages assessed”.[v] The award of damages for Zoe Support recognised “that the entity may not be awarded damages for hurt feelings” but reflects Justice Gleeson’s conclusion “as to the sum required to convince a bystander of the baselessness of Ms Brewer’s terrible charges”.[vi]

With respect to Dr Philip Webster, the damages reflect the “need to vindicate his long standing reputation as a medical practitioner”.[vii]

The higher amount of damages awarded to Dr Anne Webster reflects “the number of publications making imputations against her, and the viciousness of Ms Brewer’s conduct directed towards her”.[viii]

With respect to Dr Philip Webster and Dr Anne Webster’s, the award of damages was also intended to “provide consolation for the undoubted hurt inflicted by Ms Brewer’s defamatory conduct”.[ix]

Damages Awarded:

(a) Compensatory damages (including aggravated damages) for Dr Anne Webster – $350,000.00

(b) Compensatory damages (including aggravated damages) for Dr Philip Webster – $225,000.00

(c) Compensatory damages (including aggravated damages) for Zoe Support – $300,000.00


Wells v Cossari [2020] VCC 988

Date of Decision: 23 July 2020

Court: County Court of Victoria

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff, a Victorian Liberal Member for Rowville, commenced proceedings against the Defendant, for statements made about him on Facebook during the November 2018 state election campaign.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

In deciding the amount of damages to award, the Court held that “[t]he final and perhaps most significant contrast between this case and Mirabella’s case [Mirabella v Price & Anor [2018] VCC 650]” is that no apology had been forthcoming from Mr Cossari and that Mr Cossari had instead pressed a counterclaim.[x] The Court noted that the award of damages represented a smaller award than was made in Mirabella v Price & Anor [2018] VCC 650 because the publication was “much less extensive” and the incident was brought to the attention of the mainstream media only as a result of the Plaintiff’s own legal advisors.[xi]

Further, the Court found that the defendant’s defence of the proceeding was not bona fide and thus the defendant’s persistence in the allegation of falsehood and refusal to tender an apology “must be regarded as indicative of malice”.[xii]

Damages awarded:

(a) Compensatory Damages – $120,000.00

(b) Aggravated Damages – $20,000.00


Nationwide News Pty Limited v Rush [2020] FCFCA 115 (Appeal from Rush v Nationwide News Pty Limited (No 7) [2019] FCA 496)

Date of Decision: 2 July 2020

Court: Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia

Publication Media:

The Applicant, Mr Rush, sued the Respondent, Nationwide News in the Federal Court of Australia for allegedly defamatory publications in print and online.

The extent of the publication was significant. The articles were published in the Daily Telegraph, the Advertiser, the Courier Mail, and the Gold Coast Bulletin.

The Federal Court awarded Mr Rush damages for defamation of almost $2.9million (including compensatory and aggravated damages of $850,000)

Nationwide News appealed to the Full Federal Court.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The Full Federal Court confirmed the categorisation of the imputations as being “extremely serious[xiii] and described the harm caused to Mr Rush’s reputation as being “the result of a sensationalised tabloid crusade by the appellants with aggravating features of a most serious kind”.[xiv] 

The Full Court held that “[t]he award of damages…had to take account of the subjective response of Mr Rush to the publications, which left him devastated and distressed and consumed by grief. The award had to take account of the appellants’ aggravation of the harm that they had caused to Mr Rush. The potency of the imputations was a matter to be taken into account in giving effect to the object of vindication having regard to the worldwide damage that the appellants had caused to Mr Rush’s reputation.”[xv]

Damages awarded:

(a) Compensatory and aggravated damages – $850,000.00

(b) Past and future economic loss – $1.9 million

(c) Interest


Asbog Veterinary Services Pty Ltd & Anor v Barlow [2020] QDC 112

Date of Decision: 11 June 2020

Court: District Court of Queensland

Publication Media:

The Defendant made seven publications across “True Local”, a consumer guide webpage, Facebook and Twitter. The posts were removed after the receipt of a concerns notice. The other publications were removed after the proceedings were issued. The posts had a broad circulation on the different on-line forums. The posts had been shared at least 473 times on Facebook[xvi].

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The court in awarding damages considered that there were aggravating circumstances, however the publication whilst accusing both the company and vet of unfair business practices “did not accuse them of dishonesty or criminal conduct”[xvii].  The court accepted that the posts on social media had been removed and were of a transitory nature.

Damages awarded:

There was no evidence of actual loss by the company before the court[xviii]. The court noted that in the case of a company, in the absence of actual injury to reputation by way of loss of goodwill or clients, the resulting award of damages may be moderate or nominal[xix].

(a) Compensatory Damages to Asbog Veterinary Services – $10,000.00

(b) Compensatory Damages to Mr O’Grady (vet) – $15,000.00

(c) Interest was awarded in the sum of $1,697.72 and $2,546.57 respectively


Smith v Jones [2020] NSWDC 262

Date of Decision: 28 May 2020

Court: District Court of New South Wales

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff, a Sutherland Shire solicitor, commenced proceedings against the Defendant for reviews published on Yelp and Google.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The defamatory material was categorised by the Court in the following way, “Each of the pleaded and established imputations is serious and strikes at the character, professionalism, honesty and competency of the plaintiff as a solicitor in practice”.[xx] District Court Judge Scotting was satisfied that the publications were “published to the world at large and probably read by at least a few thousand people[xxi] and would be “read by people searching the internet to engage a solicitor in the Sutherland and/or Wollongong area and that some of those people chose not to engage the plaintiff[xxii] as a result of the publications.

The Plaintiff was entitled to aggravated damages on the basis that the Defendant knew the contents of the publications were untrue. The publications formed part of a pattern of conduct by the Defendant which sought to “harass the Plaintiff because he was acting as a solicitor for the clients”.[xxiii]

Damages awarded:

(a) Compensatory and aggravated damages together – $80,000.00

(b) Interest was awarded in the sum of $4,821.00


Goldberg v Voigt [2020] NSWDC 174

Date of Decision: 7 May 2020

Court: District Court of New South Wales

Publication Media:

The Defendant published on the Rose Bay Community – Original and Official Group Facebook Page.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The defamatory material was categorised by the Court in the following way, “In this matter, although the imputations conveyed are undeniably serious, the dissemination is considerably limited and no evidence is provided to indicate that the defamation was ever spread outside of the Rose Bay area. In addition, the medium of the post, being a Facebook publication, carries far less weight when compared to other forms of publication. Finally, I accept the defendant’s submission that a Facebook post of this nature would be transitory, especially in circumstances where the post has long been deleted. For these reasons, I find the present matter is at the lower end of the scale.” [xxiv]

Damages awarded:

Compensatory and aggravated damages together – $35,000.00


Defteros v Google LLC [2020] VSC 219

Date of Decision: 30 April 2020

Court: Victorian Supreme Court

Publication Media:

The Court held that Google by including a hyperlink in the Google search results to the Underworld article published on the Age newspaper website, had published the article during the period 11 February 2016 to 150 people. The court found that the Underworld article conveyed the imputation that the Plaintiff had crossed the line from professional lawyer.. to confidant and friend of, criminal elements[xxv].

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The Court was of the view that the defamatory imputations conveyed by the Underworld article to be at the “less serious end of the spectrum”, because the Plaintiff had acknowledged a friendship with one long term criminal client and because the Judge was “satisfied that he had a settled reputation as a lawyer who did not befriend his clients.”[xxvi]

Damages awarded:

Compensatory damage – $40,000.00


Darwin v Norman [2020] NSWSC 357

Date of Decision: 8 April 2020

Court: New South Wales Supreme Court

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff successfully complained about defamatory imputations arising from blog posts and an article the Defendant wrote for the Nimbin Times.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The defamatory material was categorised by the Court in the following way, “I have no hesitation in inferring that each of the plaintiffs has sustained significant damage to reputation from the publication of these defamatory matters, particularly as a result of the imputations upon their honesty in business.[xxvii]

Damages awarded:

In determining the amount of damages, the Court noted that the publications on the internet have remained visible to the public for an extended period and the evidence supported the inference that the Plaintiff’s family, friends and prospective employers had seen the material.[xxviii]

The Plaintiffs were entitled to aggravated damages on the basis that the Defendant was reckless in publishing the publications and unjustifiably maintained the defence of truth.[xxix]

Each plaintiff was awarded compensatory damages (including aggravated damages) of $200,000.00


Brose v Baluskas & Ors (No 6) [2020] QDC 15

Date of Decision: 28 February 2020

Court: Queensland District Court

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff, Tamborine Mountain High School Principal, sued members of the Tamborine Mountain community over comments published on a private Facebook page and an online petition.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

Although the Plaintiff was able to demonstrate that she suffered some damage to her reputation, the publication was found not to have substantially damage her reputation. The evidence established that the Plaintiff was reinstated as Principal of the School after the posts were published and the Court noted that “[i]t follows that the negative online posts did not affect her ability to re-establish her role” and that “there was no cogent evidence that the plaintiff was shunned by parents or teachers or those in the broader community at all – let alone as a result of the online negative posts”.[xxx]

The award of damages took into account the need to vindicate the Plaintiff’s reputation as a result of subsequent media publications which contained either full or partial republications of all of the posts.[xxxi] Further, the Plaintiff suffered some hurt and distress as a result of the posts but not to the extent alleged.[xxxii] The damages were further limited as it was “not possible to isolate the harm caused to the plaintiff’s reputation and her hurt and distress given the myriad of factors going on in her life”.[xxxiii]

Damages awarded:

The two Defendants were required to pay compensatory damages of $3,000.00 each.

The Plaintiff received settlement compensations from other defendants in the proceeding totalling $182,500.00.[xxxiv]


Cheng v Lok [2020] SASC 14

Date of Decision: 6 February 2020

Court: Supreme Court of South Australia

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff, a well-respected Adelaide lawyer, commenced proceedings against the Defendant after she published a review in English and Mandarin on Google My Business. The Plaintiff had never met or represented the Defendant.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The defamatory material was categorised by the Court in the following way, “The defamatory publications hit at the heart of the plaintiff’s business and reputation. The imputations are grave; publication occurred over a period of at least six months and the only mitigation was that undertaken by the plaintiff himself. Separate to the damage to the goodwill of the plaintiff’s business is the damage to his own reputation. I have no doubt that significant damage was caused by the publication, and any award of damages must, in the words of Blue J, “be sufficient to signal the public vindication of [his] reputation.[xxxv]

Damages awarded:

In total, the sum of $750,000.00 was awarded in damages, comprising of:

(a) Past economic loss – $300,000.00

(b) Future economic loss – $100,000.00

(c) Loss of Goodwill – $150,000.00

(d) Compensatory damages – $100,000.00

(e) Aggravated damages – $100,000.00


Poniatowska v Channel Seven Sydney Pty Ltd (No. 2) [2020] SASCFC 5; [2019] SASCFC 111

Date of Decision: 29 January 2020; 27 September 2019

Court: Full Court of South Australian Supreme Court

Publication Media:

The Defendant was successfully sued by the Plaintiff for publishing defamatory allegations about the Plaintiff in their television program Today Tonight, which was uploaded onto the Today Tonight webpage.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The Full Court held that the imputations, objectively viewed “were likely to cause substantial distress” and in Ms Poniatowska’s case they exacerbated a pre-existing medical condition.[xxxvi]

Damages for non-economic loss were assessed on the basis that the program was broadcast in New South Wales and Western Australia,[xxxvii] and taking into account that Ms Poniatowska lived, studied and worked in South Australia.[xxxviii]

The Full Court found that the evidence in relation to the internet downloads of the program were “unfortunately complex”.[xxxix] In the circumstances, the Full Court proceeded on the premise that the story was viewed on approximately 100 occasions.[xl] As such, although the internet story transcended state borders, “the number of South Australians before whom Ms Poniatowska’s standing suffered is relatively confined”.[xli]

Nonetheless, the amount of damages had to be “sufficient to vindicate Ms Poniatowska’s reputation in the face of serious allegations”.[xlii]

Damages awarded:

(a) Economic loss – $80,000.00

(b) Non-economic loss – $200,000.00


Jensen v Nationwide News Pty Ltd (No. 13) [2019] WASC 451

Date of Decision: 20 December 2019

Court: Supreme Court of Western Australia

Publication Media:

The Plaintiff successfully sued the Defendant over defamatory imputations arising from two articles published in print and online.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

The Court held that the allegations were serious, but that “the nature of the defamation in this case was not as serious as some of the far more serious imputations in a number of the decided cases referred to by Dr Jensen as comparable awards..” [xliii]

Damages awarded:

Compensatory and aggravated damages together – $325,000.00 (interest awarded at a rate of 6% per annum)


Jane Doe v Shane Dowling [2019] NSWSC 1222

Date of Decision: 20 September 2019

Court: Supreme Court of New South Wales

Publication Media:

The Defendant had published  allegedly defamatory articles about the four unnamed Plaintiffs on his website Kangaroo Court of Australia.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

Although the Plaintiffs did not provide affidavit or oral evidence on damages, the Court inferred that the publication of the articles “would necessarily have caused damage to reputation and hurt to feelings[xliv]

The Court held that “while the plaintiffs’ reticence to give evidence is understandable and does not support an inference against their case on damages, it does leave their case in a bare state”.[xlv] There was no evidence of the number of people who viewed the articles and there was no evidence the mainstream media republished the articles. The interlocutory injunction granted in an earlier proceeding was deemed effective at discouraging republication and that it would have minimised the damage to reputation.[xlvi]

Despite the above, the Court found that “[a]ny woman in the position of these plaintiffs would feel demeaned and lowered in the esteem of everyone who knows her by such assertions and would experience anger toward the perpetrator”.[xlvii]

Each Plaintiff was entitled to aggravated damages on the basis that the Defendant acted improperly and without bona fides, and in particular the articles were published “without the slightest attempt at verification and thereafter failing to retract or apologise”.[xlviii] The Defendant also maintained publication of the articles in defiance of the interlocutory injunctions and published the names of the Plaintiffs in breach of court orders. [xlix]

Damages awarded:

In addition to each Plaintiff being awarded a permanent prohibitory injunction, each Plaintiff was awarded $150,000.00 (including aggravated damages).


John O’Neill v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd (No 2) [2019] NSWSC 655

Date of Decision: 11 July 2019

Court: Supreme Court of New South Wales

Publication Media:

Following a boxing match between Danny Green and Anthony Mundine, the Plaintiff, a doctor, sued the Defendant for an article published in print and online.

Categorisation of defamatory material:

In accepting the imputations were defamatory, the Court found that “Had Dr O’Neill been named in the matters complained of, I would accept that an amount at the top of the range should be awarded. I am nevertheless satisfied that this was a very serious defamation. The damage clearly spread among Dr O’Neill’s colleagues and friends potentially damaging his reputation irreparably in some quarters. ” [l]

Damages awarded:

(a) Compensatory damages – $350,000.00

(b) Aggravated damages – $35,000.00

* This article is an update of the article entitled ‘Damages for On-line Defamation 2015 to October 2019’, authored by Katarina Klaric. The contribution of Peter Divitcos in researching, compiling and authoring  the list of cases in this article (for July 2019 to September 2020) is acknowledged.  The assistance of Rochina Iannella in updating and editing this article is also acknowledged.

This update is not intended to be a substitute for obtaining legal advice.

© Stephens Lawyers & Consultants. September 2020.

For further information contact:

Katarina Klaric
Stephens Lawyers & Consultants

Suite 205, 546 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Phone: (03) 8636 9100
Fax: (03) 8636 9199
Email: [email protected]

All Correspondence to:
PO Box 16010
Collins Street West
Melbourne VIC 8007

[i] Rothe v Scott (No.4) [2016] NSWDC 160. Gibson DCJ at para. 140.

[ii] Rush v Nationwide News Pty Limited (No 7) [2019] FCA 496

[iii] Nationwide News v Rush [2020] FCFCA 115

[iv] Defamation Act, s. 35(1); NSW Government Gazette No 56 of 26.5.2017, p 1782; Victorian Government Gazette No. G 22 of 1.6.2017, p 1006 and G 22 of 31.5.2018, p 1202, and No 55 of 31.5.2019, p 1665 (amount declared: $407,500) and No 132 of 26.6.2020, p 3045 (amount declared: $421,000).

[v] [2020] FCA 1343 [89].

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid [92].

[ix] Ibid [91].

[x] [2020] VCC 988 [149].

[xi] Ibid [151].

[xii] Ibid [153].

[xiii] [2020] FCFCA 115 [486].

[xiv] [2020] FCFCA 115 [487].

[xv] [2020] FCFCA 115 [489].

[xvi] [2020] QDC 112 [201]

[xvii] [2020]QDC 112 [200].

[xviii] Ibid [197].

[xix] Ibid [170].

[xx] [2020] NSWDC 262 [47].

[xxi] Ibid [57].

[xxii] Ibid [58].

[xxiii] Ibid [60] – [61].

[xxiv] [2020] NSWDC 174 [58].

[xxv] [2020]VSC 219 [290]

[xxvi] [2020] VSC 219 [313]

[xxvii] [2020] NSWSC 357 [162].

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid [165].

[xxx] [2020] QDC 15 [361].

[xxxi] Ibid [413].

[xxxii] Ibid [453].

[xxxiii] Ibid [454].

[xxxiv] Ibid [467].

[xxxv] [2020] SASC 14 [57].

[xxxvi] [2020] SASCFC 5 [117].

[xxxvii] Ibid [93].

[xxxviii] Ibid [118].

[xxxix] Ibid [96].

[xl] Ibid [103].

[xli] Ibid [118].

[xlii] Ibid [119].

[xliii] [2019] WASC 451 [559].

[xliv] [2019] NSWSC 1222 [60].

[xlv] Ibid [63].

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Ibid [66].

[xlviii] Ibid [67].

[xlix] Ibid [68].

[l] [2019] NSWSC 655 [241].