LAW

A lesson in libel

ROBERT BLOCK October 29 1984
LAW

A lesson in libel

ROBERT BLOCK October 29 1984

A lesson in libel

On Oct. 26,1980, a CTV network news program alleged that Walker Brothers Quarries Ltd., a waste disposal company near Niagara Falls, Ont., had secretly disposed of toxic wastes without informing the provincial environment ministry. But last week company president Norris Walker celebrated with champagne after an Ontario Supreme Court jury concluded that W5, the network’s main public affairs program, had broadcast false accusations libelling him with malice and injuring the reputation of his firm. Then, the four women and two men on the civil jury granted the largest libel award in Canadian history: $883,000 to the firm, $25,000 in personal damages to Walker and $50,000 in exemplary damages. With 12-per-cent interest on the first two amounts calculated from January, 1981 (when Walker filed the suit), the award amounts to $1,372,048.

For its part, CTV announced that it will appeal the award. Said William Somers, the network’s lawyer: “For openers, the damages are so excessive they cannot stand. They do not reflect a proper compensation.” Indeed, the damages were dramatially higher than previous awards in Canadian libel cases. They include a 1982 Supreme Court of Ontario award of $75,000 against the Toronto Sun for libelling former Liberal cabinet minister John Munro and a British Columbia Supreme Court ruling the same year that ordered the CBC television network to pay $125,000 for libelling Richard Vogel, then the deputy attorney general of the province. Peter Butler, the Vancouver lawyer who acted for Vogel, said that the last week’s award simply confirmed a three-year trend to higher damages in libel cases.

During the three-week hearing in Ontario Supreme Court lawyer Julian Porter successfully argued that the CTV broadcast had falsely accused Walker’s firm of secretly disposing of toxic liquid waste from the Ford Motor Co. in Oakville in 1979. As well, reporter Henry Champ, who is now NBC’s European bureau chief in London, alleged that the company had misrepresented the amount of waste that had been dumped when it reported to the provincial ministry. Porter noted that in preparing the broadcast, W5 left out material that weakened the accusations. Said Porter: “This is going to be a lesson that television networks will have to watch very carefully. They will have to review in great detail how they edit and prepare shows.”

ROBERT BLOCK