Sydney lawyer awarded $84k after online smear campaign
A Sydney solicitor has successfully sued a building inspector for defamation and has been ordered to pay $84,000 in defamation damages.
Lawyer Mark Rodger Smith sued inspector Richard Jones in the NSW District Court over reviews on Google and Yelp in 2018.
Mr Smith, the principal of firm Brander Smith Mcknight Lawyers in the Sutherland Shire, launched defamation proceedings in 2018 against building inspector Mr Jones for two defamatory reviews posted on Yelp and Google reviews.
Mr Smith had acted for clients who were involved in a dispute about fees and a report provided by Mr Jones, who was the managing director of Sydney Building Defects Inspections and Reports.
In a decision published online, Judge Andrew Scotting found Mr Jones had defamed the solicitor and ordered him to pay $80,000 damages, $4,280 interest and his legal costs.
“As recently as 3 April 2020, the defendant has represented in email correspondence that he does not care about the outcome of the proceedings and that he will continue to defame the plaintiff ‘again and again,’” the judge said.
The defamation trial went ahead without Mr Jones, who did not file a defence and who emailed the judge’s associate saying he would not participate in the hearing.
The email stated “the plaintiff will be getting nothing”.
Court documents reveal that Mr Jones said the solicitor “can bankrupt me” and “was an officer of the court threatening a commoner, witnessed by my wife, whilst he was acting for two devious and cunning developers who didn’t want to pay for their defects report”.
During that dispute, Mr Jones had replied to an email from Mr Smith asking that all correspondence be directed to him rather than his clients: “Hey wanker, No place for you [in a tribunal hearing where legal costs were capped at $30,000] ... Now f--k off.”
He accused Mr Smith of “wasting ... [the clients’] money as a [six-minute] unit charger”.
Mr Smith gave evidence that Mr Jones told him in a phone call that he was going to “break every bone in your body” and “you haven’t dealt with someone like me before”.
“I’m coming to get you and your dumb c--t cheating client,” Mr Jones allegedly.
The defamatory reviews, posted by a “Richard J” and Richard Jones, appeared in about August 2018.
The judge was satisfied the Yelp review implied that Mr Smith was “worthy of ridicule, unethical, places financial gain ahead of ethics and that he financially exploits his own clients”.
“I am satisfied that the matters complained of were published to the world at large and probably read by at least a few thousand people.”
Other defamatory meanings were that he acted unprofessionally by commencing frivolous and vexatious proceedings.
The second review also conveyed defamatory meanings including that the solicitor threatened to assault Mr Jones to achieve his clients’ ends and was a standover man.
“The defamation of the plaintiff was serious in that it struck at the heart of his character and the conduct of his profession as a solicitor,” Judge Scotting said.
The judge said Mr Jones knew the contents of the reviews were untrue.
They were “part of a pattern of conduct by the defendant, seeking to harass the plaintiff because he was acting as a solicitor for the clients”.
Along with damages, including interest, the judge also granted an injunction to stop Mr Jones from, repeating the comments in light of his threat to defame Mr Smith “again and again”.