Missing Apostrophe in Facebook Post Lands a Man in Defamation Court

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The missing apostrophe could cost a real estate agent tens of thousands of dollars after an Australian court ruled that the libel case against him could be pursued via a Facebook post.

Agent Anthony Zadravich, who lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales, released a post on October 22, accusing his former job and a man named Stuart Gunn of not paying pension funds to all of their employees.

Less than 12 hours later, he deleted the message. But it was too late. Mr. Gan became aware of this report and filed a libel suit against Mr. Zadravich, sparking a fight over a pinhead punctuation mark in a country that has earned a reputation world capital of libel

When it comes to punctuation, social media is the Wild West. In some corners of the Internet, sloppy grammar is very tolerant – even a badge of honor. However, in legal matters, controversial punctuation can cost millions.

One recent case in Portland, Michigan, truck drivers overtime depended on the absence of the Oxford comma in state law. The $ 5 million case settled in 2018 gained international prominence when the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that a missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers. This gave the grammar-obsessed and Oxford comma aficionados a chance to savor the victory.

Lawyers say the missing apostrophe case is not surprising in Australia, which has a complex web of defamation laws and a history of large sums of money awarded to plaintiffs. In 2019, for example, Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush more than $ 2 million has been awarded in his defamation case against Rupert Murdoch’s Nationwide News, the largest such payment to a single person at the time in Australian history. That same year, a billionaire businessman won a libel case against a news organization that he claimed had mistakenly linked him to a bribery case.

In Mr. Zadravich’s case, the court scrutinized the word “employees” in his post criticizing the company: “Oh Stuart Gun !! Selling homes in Pearl Beach for several million dollars, but not being able to pay its employees for seniority, ”it said. “Shame on you, Stuart !!! 2 years and still waiting !!! “

According to court documents, in his defense, Mr. Zadravich meant that he intended to add an apostrophe. After all, who hasn’t messed up the grammar by launching a social media post in a fit of frustration?

But a judge in New South Wales dismissed his attempts to dismiss the case on the grounds that it was trivial, arguing that the missing apostrophe could be interpreted as suggesting a “systematic pattern of behavior” by Mr. Ghana’s agency.

“The difficulty for the plaintiff is the plural of employees,” District Court Judge Judith Gibson said in a statement. “Failure to pay a retirement benefit to one employee can be regrettable; failure to pay some or all of them looks deliberate. “

Judge Gibson noted that the lawsuit could cost Mr. Zadravich more than $ 180,000 and cited similar cases, including an Australian veterinarian who was awarded more than $ 18,000 after a former client posted defamatory reviews online. In the latter case, it was not immediately clear what remedies Mr. Gan had requested from the court.

Neither Mr Zadravich’s lawyers nor Mr Gan immediately responded to requests for comment.

High-profile defamation cases represent only a small fraction of the lawsuits filed in court each year.

“The courts are awash with lawsuits,” said Barry Goldsmith, special advisor to Rostron Carlyle Rojas Lawyers. A Sydney-based lawyer who has worked on defamation cases for over three decades, he added that such suits would not be possible in the United States, where the First Amendment protects free speech.

It is common knowledge that Australia’s stringent defamation laws raise concerns about media censorship. Survey 2018 The Australian Journalists’ Union found that nearly a quarter of respondents said their news story increased dramatically that year due to concerns about libel charges.

The union has called for a review of what it called the country’s “outdated” defamation laws. The need for this has become even more urgent, lawyers said after the High Court ruled last month that news sites can be prosecuted for defamation because of the responses to their Facebook articles – even if the articles themselves weren’t libelous. Shortly thereafter, CNN stopped posting articles on the country’s Facebook pages.

In the latter case, Mr Goldsmith said, the two men are more likely to come to an agreement rather than face trial.

“The intent of the defendant is irrelevant,” he said, because the layman reading the message would not know what was intended. “On paper, it’s just a very minor difference, but in reality,” said Mr. Goldsmith, “it’s a very big difference.”

While the controversy concerns the missing apostrophe, for others, misuse of punctuation marks is virtually tantamount to a crime.

As Lynn Truss writes in her book Eat, Shoot, and Walk: “It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. and have read the entire book by Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing Good Food at Its Best, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave. “

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