Celebrity Defamation: Are the damages awarded to celebrities setting unrealistic expectations for everyone else?
In September 2017, the Victorian Supreme Court upheld Rebel Wilson’s defamation claim and awarded her over $4.5 million in damages. The Court’s decision was widely publicised and it seems to have been encouraging news for people considering defamation litigation – since this decision, the amount of money claimed in defamation cases has skyrocketed throughout Australia.
The lesser known fact, however, is that an appeal court later reduced Wilson’s damages to $600,000 and ordered her to pay back almost $4 million.
Other celebrities, such as international cricketer Chris Gayle and actor Geoffrey Rush, have also commenced widely-publicised defamation proceedings.
Gayle is currently appealing a damages award made in his favour against the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, claiming that the amount that he was awarded was ‘manifestly inadequate’. The news outlets were ordered to pay Gayle damages of $300,000 plus interest after they published claims that the exposed himself to a massage therapist.
Rush is currently seeking $20 million in damages in his claim against The Daily Telegraph, which he claims portrayed him as a ‘sexual predator’ or ‘pervert’.
Cases like these have left many current and future plaintiffs hoping that they will receive similar awards of damages. However, reports of these celebrity cases often do not make the way in which damages are calculated clear. As a result, plaintiffs may get a misconception about how much money they would be likely to receive if they are successful in their claims.
How damages are awarded in defamation cases
There are three different types of damages that the Court may award in defamation claims.
Firstly, the Court must award damages for non-economic loss. This is a monetary sum which compensates for hurt feelings, damage to reputation and vindication. The amount that can be awarded by the Court for non-economic loss is capped in each State. Currently, it is capped at $398,500 in South Australia. All plaintiffs who succeed in a defamation claim receive this type of damages.
Secondly, the Court may award aggravated damages in order to condemn the defendant’s behaviour. This type of damages is sometimes awarded against a defendant who does not apologise for a defamatory publication.
Thirdly, the Court may award damages for economic loss. The Court will only make an award for economic loss where the plaintiff can prove that they have suffered a quantifiable loss, such as a loss of income, as a result of the defamation.
In Rebel Wilson’s case, the Court’s original $4.5 million award was based on damages of $650,000 for non-economic loss and damages of $3,917,472 for economic loss. Breaking her damages down in this way shows that most of her award was to compensate for her suffering a large economic loss. It therefore highlights the fact that a defamation claim will only result in a large award of damages if the plaintiff can prove that they have suffered economic loss, such as loss of income, as a result of the defamation.
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