Defamation in strata schemes

The ideal for strata living would probably be best described as attempting to achieve a happy, comfortable (and perhaps perfect) unity between the residents of a building, with those residents regularly coming together to discuss and agree upon ways and means to best deal with management and maintenance in the best interests of everyone in the building.

However, the reality is there are as many opinions as to the way a strata building should be managed and maintained as there are residents in that building. More often than not, tensions are bound to arise when a group of people are living in close proximity to each other.

As tempting as it may be to release one’s frustrations with the annoyances of strata living by shooting off a strongly worded correspondence to other residents in the building, the decision of the District Court in the recent case of Raynor v Murray [2019] NSWDC 189 should have residents exercising caution in this regard, especially where the strong words may contain allegations of a defamatory nature.

While the behaviour of residents as regards inter-building communications is not governed by legislation, the language used in these communications can leave a resident open to a defamation claim.

In Raynor, the Court held that an email communication sent by a resident (Ms M) to a number of other residents in the building defamed the chairperson of the owners corporation (Mr R) as it imputed that Mr R:

  • had unreasonably harassed and acted menacingly towards Ms M by threatening her by email;
  • was a malicious person whose emails to Ms M were for the express purpose of publicly humiliating her; and
  • was a small minded busybody wasting the time of residents on petty items (in this instance, security issues relating to the locking of residents’ mailboxes in the building).

Further, the Court held that “every sentence of [Ms M’s] email struck a blow at [Mr R], and was intended to ridicule and humiliate him in every way” and awarded Mr R general damages of $90,000 for:

  • hurt feelings (compounded by Mr R feeling he couldn’t defend himself by responding to the other residents copied in on the email);
  • the fact that the email to other residents impacted Mr R in the place he lived;
  • the unexpected libel, as Mr R’s initial emails to Ms M were trying to deal with security issues in the building;
  • Ms M’s defence of justification bringing more hurt to Mr R, and her failure to apologise to Mr R.

In addition, the Court also awarded aggravated damages of $30,000, having found Ms M’s behaviour “improper, unjustifiable and lacking in bona fides”.