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Rebel with a cause: Australia’s largest ever defamation award

17 October 2017

Monday 18 May 2015: Rebel Wilson driving to work in New York. The radio is playing – the DJ says she is being called a serial liar. She was the Australian girl who lied about everything: her age; her background; and even her name. She turned it off. The claims were false but she was advised to put a brave face on and laugh it off.

That didn’t work. When Rebel stopped being offered film roles, she got mad and then she got even. An Australian judge awarded Rebel A$4.5 million damages, the largest ever defamation award in Australia.

The damages were largely to compensate Rebel for the loss of film roles after online and print claims by Woman’s Day magazine in Australia that she was a phoney and a serial liar.

At the time the claims were made Rebel was at the top of her game. Pitch Perfect 2 had just had its worldwide premiere, outperforming Mad Max Fury Road. Rebel’s Hollywood agent was expecting lead role offers worth between US$5-$6 million each. The calls never came.

The judge held that Bauer Media had “published a series of articles as part of a campaign to takedown Rebel, timed to coincide with the release of Pitch Perfect 2 in order to maximise their benefit.” Rebel was the victim of the campaign “at a time when she should have been celebrating her success, the culmination of many years of hard work and perseverance.”

The judge accepted that Rebel had missed out on at least three lead roles and awarded US$3 million damages as compensation.

In addition the judge awarded A$650,000 general damages for distress. The judge relied upon the significant aggravation caused by Bauer’s media campaign to award more than the statutory cap for general damages of A$381,000.

Appeal

Bauer announced last week that it is appealing against the size of the $4.56 million damages awarded which it claims “has broad implications for the media industry.”

The appeal is unsurprising. It is not unusual for media defendants to appeal large damage awards, and we have seen similar tactics in English defamation cases.

Unless Bauer can now reach a settlement with Rebel, it will be for the appeal courts to decide if it was right for the judge to use his discretion to go beyond the statutory cap for general damages, and whether he was entitled to award US$3 million for the lost film roles. Like all good Hollywood sequels however, we will have to wait until next year for Wilson v Bauer part II.

Australian defamation law evolved out of the same principles as English defamation laws. While the cap for general damages under English law is now generally considered to be around £300,000, it is entirely possible, as in Rebel’s case, to recover special damage awards of millions of pounds.

The Wilson case is interesting from an English perspective, as it demonstrates that judges, can and will, make very substantial libel awards in the right circumstances. When endorsement and film deals are worth millions, such damages can be very substantial indeed. The judge found in Rebel’s case that the defamation sparked a “huge international media firestorm.”

In today’s digital age, false claims can reverberate around the globe in minutes, destroying hard earned reputations, and wiping millions off an artist’s financial worth. Publishers take heed as you publish defamatory claims at your peril.

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