BC court awards teacher $67,500 for neighbour's defamatory Facebook comments
In 2014, a woman in Abbotsford, B-C, took to Facebook to vent about her neighbour, Doug Pritchard. Now, Katherine Van Nes will have to pay more than $67,000 in damages, for defaming and damaging her neighbour.
The neighbours' relationship had been tense over the years. But then,Van Nes went online, posting comments to Facebook saying that Pritchard was videotaping her children and suggesting his behaviour was not normal.
Pritchard took his neighbour to court for defamation. And he won.
In his ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Justice A. Saunders found that Van Nes was responsible not only for her comments on Facebook, but that she was also responsible for her friend's comments made on her page. Some of her friends referred to Pritchard as a "pedo," a "creep" and a "nutter."
Doug Pritchard spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from his Abbotsford home.
Carol Off: Mr. Pritchard, how did you first become aware that these comments had been made about you on Facebook?
Doug Pritchard: It was actually a parent of one of my music students who came to the school. I was doing term testing at the time, and she urged me out of where I was, and said she needed to show me something on Facebook.
She used my name. She identifies me in the in the original comment as a teacher at Abbotsford School District. And she said that I'm spying on her and her kids in her backyard, and just making false claims.- Abbotsford music teacher Doug Pritchard
CO: What does the actual posting say?
DP: [Van Nes] talks about having a neighbour videotaping her and her family in the backyard, over the summers, under the guise of recording -- keeping a record of our dog.
CO: Does she use your name?
DP: She used my name. She identifies me in the in the original comment as a teacher at Abbotsford School District. And she said that this is a red flag, because she's talking about this is borderline obsessive behavior, not normal that I'm spying on her and her kids in her backyard, and just making false claims: that I have mirrors hanging outside my home, and I videotaped their kids in their backyard 24/7. So after that is when the comments started to come and things started to go viral. She commented nine times in some of those as though — I think [the judge] described it as kind of "stoking the fire".
Allegations concerning Mr. Pritchard's behavior, and these attacks on his character, were completely false and unjustified.- Justice A. Saunders
CO: It's important really early on in this conversation that we tell people what the judge concluded in this case. He said that "allegations concerning Mr. Pritchard's behavior, and these attacks on his character, were completely false and unjustified. And that Mr. Pritchard has, as a consequence of the defendant's thoughtless reckless actions, suffered serious damage to his reputation." How long how long did this go on before you actually took this to the courts?
DP: We started litigation almost immediately. As a teacher you have no choice. Your reputation as a teacher is everything, especially when those kind of allegations are attached to you. The judge also, in his conclusion, says that "accusation of pedophilic behavior must be the single most effective means of destroying a teacher's reputation and career, not to mention the devastating effects on their life and individual dignity." So it was kind of an immediate impact.
CO: I just want to get a sense of how long this went on, these Facebook comments, and how widespread they were disseminated.
DP: The post itself was I think up for less than 24 hours. But the damage, as he concludes was devastating in that time. And I guess that's the danger of something like Facebook and the speed at which it travels. So she had, at that time, more than 2,000 friends. So that was the immediate audience. There are also no privacy settings on her website, so it's basically open to the entire Internet. Anybody could go access that page who wanted to. After they had heard allegations, it was free for anybody to go see.
CO: How did it get actually get into the your teaching community and your student community?
DP: Abbotsford's not a large community. Most of the people that I see on her friends list are from my community — people I know, people I play hockey with, and parents in my school.
"Justice Saunders says that "the taint of suspicion is not easily expunged." And I think he's absolutely right about that. I focus on family. And I concentrate on my students at school. I think rehearsals are a bit of a refuge. And I guess that's how I wanted to kind of move forward. - Doug Pritchard
CO: And your kids are teenagers. One was attending your school as well. He was exposed to this.
DP: Yeah, it was very, very hard for them. They [were] afraid to go out, because there were other things that happened to our house, and to our property after this came out. Our car was keyed. Two-thousand dollars damage to our car. Our door bell would ring after we'd gone to bed, late at night. We had no idea what was going on. So it was very, very tough on my kids.
CO: So the court awarded has awarded you $67,500 in damage. But what lasting damage has there been to you and to the lives of you and your family members?
DP: Well, Justice Saunders says that "the taint of suspicion is not easily expunged." And I think he's absolutely right about that. That's the way that I feel. So he said it won't be easy to recover from false allegations, even though they're false. In terms of me, how I feel, I focus on family. And I concentrate on my students at school. We have performances coming up, one even tonight, with three groups performing, and I think rehearsals are a bit of a refuge. And I guess that's how I wanted to kind of move forward.
CO: Well, it sounds like just a nightmare. I'm glad at least this phase of it is over for you, and I appreciate speaking with you thank
DP: Thank you.