Australian court awards record damages

Defamation against Channel 9 and journalist

An Australian court has just ordered record general damages for defamation against the Channel 9 television network and a journalist, Nick Cater. In Wagner & Ors v Nine Network Australia & Ors [2019] QSC 284, John, Denis, Neill and Joe Wagner, who are prominent industrialists, were each awarded $900,000 by Justice Peter Applegarth in the Supreme Court of Queensland. It is the highest general damages award in a defamation trial Australia by a judge sitting alone. With interest of $94,500 to each plaintiff, the total judgment sum was just under $4 million.

The proceedings arose out of a segment on Channel 9’s flagship ’60 Minutes’ programme about a devastating flood that destroyed the town of Grantham in rural Queensland in 2011. The plaintiffs alleged that the programme imputed that they had caused the destruction of the town and the deaths of 12 people, including an infant, when a wall collapsed at a nearby quarry owned by them, unleashing an enormous wall of water that engulfed the town. It also imputed that they had sought to conceal the truth of their involvement from becoming known, and had disgracefully refused to answer to the public.

A jury found that all of the defamatory meanings alleged by the plaintiffs were conveyed; all other defences had been abandoned, and Justice Applegarth assessed damages. There were substantial aggravating factors.

The judgment comes a year after the same plaintiffs were each awarded $850,000 in general damages, which was then itself a record sum, in proceedings against Harbour Radio and commentator Alan Jones, in respect of similar allegations (and a number of others). In that earlier case there was a defence of truth; the allegations were comprehensively rejected after a lengthy trial involving numerous witnesses and expert hydrological evidence.

The judgment can be downloaded using the ‘Files’ link below.

5RB’s Tom Blackburn SC leading Pat McCafferty QC (who took silk in the course of the proceedings) appeared for the plaintiffs in both proceedings.