A Winnipeg real estate broker and developer awarded $500,000 by a jury in a defamation lawsuit has had the award slashed to a fraction of its size by Manitoba’s highest court.
The original damage award "was so inordinately high that it was an erroneous estimate of the damage done to the plaintiff (Marcel Chartier)," the Manitoba Court of Appeal ruled in a written decision last week, reducing the award to $50,000.
"Civil jury trials in Manitoba are rare," wrote Justice William Burnett on behalf of the appeal court. "Awards for defamation (in the original amount) are virtually non-existent."
Chartier declined to comment on the decision Monday.
Serge Bibeau didn’t appeal the jury’s finding he had defamed Chartier, but argued the $500,000 judgment against him was so high it "shocks the conscience and amounts to an injustice," the appeal court said.
Chartier sued after Bibeau told two of Chartier’s business associates in 2016 that he was a thief and alleged he had stolen money from him, tied to a 2009 "investment opportunity " involving the yet-to-be-built IKEA store on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Chartier and Bibeau were friends and had "numerous" investment dealings over the years, with Bibeau earning as much as $20 million from the deals, says the court decision.
In 2009, Bibeau entered into an agreement with Chartier and his son that would see them each invest $1.25 million in the IKEA development, with profits and losses to be shared equally between them, says the court decision. Bibeau’s investment ultimately returned him a profit of $2.67 million.
At trial, jurors heard evidence Bibeau met two of Chartier’s friends and business associates at a restaurant in 2017, and told them Chartier was a thief and had stolen money from him related to the IKEA development.
Court heard no evidence the comments were repeated, and Chartier admitted on cross examination he was not aware of losing any business opportunities as a result of the comments.
"According to (Bibeau), the defamatory comments were made in passing to two individuals, a small audience by any measure," Burnett wrote. "The impact of the comments was negligible, especially given that the persons to whom the comments were uttered still conduct business with (Chartier)."
Absent incorrect instructions to a jury, appeal courts are "generally reluctant" to interfere with a jury’s decision on financial damages, Burnett said.
"In my view, notwithstanding the absence of misdirection or other error, this is the exceptional case which meets the test for appellate intervention," he said.
While rejecting Bibeau’s claim his defamatory comments were "relatively minor," Burnett said their limited spread and the absence of any measurable harm to Chartier made the jury’s $500,000 award "wholly disproportionate and shockingly unreasonable."
"This was not a case of widespread or repeated publication of defamatory statements in the print media, radio, television or on the internet, and there was no actual effect on (Chartier’s) reputation or business interests," the judge said.
Burnett said a review of 50 recent decisions where damages were awarded for defamation showed the $500,000 award was "well beyond" the reasonable range.
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.