Bent v. Platnick, 2020 SCC 23

A Defamation lawsuit can be halted in Ontario only if it qualifies the requisites of a “Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation” (SLAPP).

It is important to have freedom of expression in a democracy but this has few limitations. One such limitation is defamation that aims to protect the reputation of a person from being unfairly harmed. Appellant, a lawyer was elected to Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA) on the post of president. Members of this association were representing people who were hurt in car accidents while insurance companies hired Respondent, a Doctor to look at written reports given by other medical professionals on the injury suffered by the people in such cases. In 2014, an email was sent by Appellant to OTLA alleging that misrepresentation was done by the respondent. She asserted that the reports from other doctors were changed in a way that the injuries suffered by her client looked less serious, all done with ulterior motive of giving fewer insurance benefits to the people. Although the emails were to be maintained confidential, someone shared them which later also ended up getting published in a magazine from the insurance industry in form of an article. The respondent challenged her conclusions being erroneous and false and asked the appellant to apologize for harming his reputation. On appellant’s refusal to do so, a lawsuit for defamation was filed by the respondent against Ms. Bent and her law firm. Damages over $16 million were asked by him along with the consequential lost income.

However, the appellant claimed it to be “Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation” (SLAPP). These are lawsuits that do not have authentic legal claims and result in stopping people from raising their voices for something that holds public importance. Under law of Ontario, such SLAPPs can be stopped even from reaching the courts. While, there was disagreement between the motion judge and the Court of Appeal on whether it was a SLAPP in present case of not, the appellant knocked the doors of the Canada’s Supreme Court to decide the matter.

The Supreme Court judges in the majority ruled that the lawsuit filed by respondent should be allowed as the same cannot be considered as SLAPP. The court ruled so on the basis that the respondent was successful in establishing the three required essentials. First, that chances of winning were likely on his part. Second, that there was no valid defense on the side of the appellant and third, it was important for the public to go ahead with his lawsuit rather than the consideration of protecting appellant’s freedom of expression. Noting the broadcasting of concerned e-mail constituting a personal attack on the respondent resulting into loss of income and damage to reputation of the respondent. Thus, the verdict implied that the respondent merely deserves a chance to prove his case in court rather than any surety of his success in the litigation ahead.