Vet defamation court case tests social media freedoms
The case of a Queensland dog owner sued by her vet for $100,000 in defamation damages is a test of the freedoms of customers to state their honest opinions about businesses on social media, a court has heard.
Chris Crawford, counsel for dog owner Carrie Barlow, submitted to the District Court in Brisbane today that Ms Barlow's case "is about to what extent can social media be used to comment on businesses".
"We say we must have some freedom, not to defame, but to state honest opinions," Mr Crawford told the court.
Ms Barlow had been sued over seven posts she made on Facebook, Twitter and online review site TrueLocal over a ten day period in October 2014.
Allen O'Grady, 65, a long-serving vet who then-operated the Albion vet surgery, in inner Brisbane, and the Eatons Hill vet surgery in northwest Brisbane, told the District Court yesterday that he was hurt and upset by the posts made after Ms Barlow felt she had been overcharged.
Ms Barlow, the owner of beagle "Valentine", vented her frustration on Twitter in October 2014 claiming Mr O'Grady's Albion vet surgery, had marked-up dog antibiotics by and other drugs by 400 per cent.
Ms Barlow's posts were triggered by a $427 vet bill to give Valentine two stitches after he was attacked by another dog. Valentine was treated by another vet, Brad Konners, and not Mr O'Grady, the court heard.
Ms Barlow was charged $32.50 for ten tablets of the antibiotic Amoxyclav that was purchased by the practice for $6, but she learned was for sale online for $9.
"The vet is a very grumpy (SIC) who should not be dealing with people or animals" Ms Barlow wrote on Truelocal on October 15.
"Shame on you 400 per cent mark-up" she tweeted on 14 October 2014.
She asked her followers to share some of her posts, so others could "avoid" Mr O'Grady's practice, mentioning his Eatons Hill practice, the court heard.
Mr O'Grady claims that Ms Barlow's seven posts defamed him by implying he takes advantage of his clients and grossly overcharges them, he lacks the personality to deal with people or animals and should be avoided.
In his closing address, summarising the evidence in the case, Mr Crawford said that Ms Barlow's posts were her either the truth or her honest opinion, and that web users knew that Facebook, Twitter and sites such as TrueLocal were "opinion websites".
Mark Martin QC, for Mr O'Grady submitted Ms Barlow had failed to make out her "truth defence" to defend her claim that Mr O'Grady's practice "grossly overcharges its clients", or that the practice takes advantage of its clients.
"She had no complaint about her dogs treatment by the vet," Mr Martin told the court in his closing address.
"What really annoyed her and set this whole thing in motion was the letter from my client," Mr Martin said.
Mr Martin has asked the court to award Mr O'Grady and his business "aggravated damages" because she allegedly persisted with her claims and would not agree to apologise.
He alleges Mr O'Grady's Eatons Hill business was damaged by her statements which triggered a "backlash" with angry and abusive people telephoning Mr O'Grady's surgery.
Mr Crawford told Judge Suzanne Sheridan that Mr O'Grady had tried to provoke Ms Barlow by giving her a handwritten letter on October 14, 2014 telling her that 'I've got this after hours service but you cant use it' after she told the practice she wished to take her business elsewhere.
That is petty and unprofessional to say, Mr Crawford told the court.
Mr Martin submitted that provocation was not a defence in defamation law.
In his evidence Mr O'Grady said his letter to Ms Barlow was poorly phrased and he effectively wanted nothing to do with her.
Mr Crawford denied Ms Barlow had acted maliciously when she posted the comments.
He said that Ms Barlow's posts were largely about Mr O'Grady's business, his Albion vet surgery, and not really about him personally.
"There has been no-one in the witness box saying his reputation has been lessened," Mr Crawford said.
Mr Crawford said that publication of Ms Barlow's comments were made to a limited audience of Twitter followers and Facebook viewers, and they were only visible for a short time.
She had 170 Twitter followers and 370 Facebook followers on the accounts where she made the posts, the court heard.
Judge Sheridan has reserved her decision, following a two-day hearing.