Oh, I heard it through the grapevine but is it right or all wrong?

The chorus to the old Creedence Clearwater Revival classic written by Marvin Gaye.

"Oh I heard it through the grapevine and I’m just about to lose my mind"

The "grapevine" effect was discussed in a recent Queensland Appeal Court case dealing with defamation of a regional shed builder. The plaintiff, Mr P, sued a Mr R in relation to a number of statements Mr R made to three different people. A jury had found the statements defamatory and Mr P had been awarded damages by the trial Judge. Mr R appealed the decision.

The plaintiff, Mr P was a registered builder who often constructed sheds as a sub-contractor for a shed supplier Mr S and he referred Mr R to Mr P.

Mr R was not happy with the shed and put a number of complaints to Mr P about the shed, including alleged breaks in concrete and cracks in the workshop floor.

Mr R repeated his allegations, which included that Mr P was "an incompetent builder", and a "dishonest builder", to the shed supplier Mr S. Mr S was the source of a lot of work to Mr P. Mr R also made similar statements to Mr P’s apprentice and to another sub-contractor.

The trial judge hearing the case had noted that the impact of what the judge called the "grapevine effect", could be damaging, particularly in a regional area. In fact, Mr S stopped referring work to Mr P, which obviously had an impact on his business.

The trial judge heard evidence that Mr P had a reputation for honesty and was held in high regard, and that his standing was a matter of importance to him. That is not surprising as a reputation is important to all of us.

In William Shakespeare’s play Othello, one of his characters said "reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial".

Politicians however can take a different attitude. Margaret Thatcher apparently said "I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left". Talk about a thick hide!

The trial judge awarded $50,000 plus legal costs against the unhappy customer Mr R and that award was confirmed by the Appeal Court.

While a defamatory complaint about someone’s work in a capital city may not cause the person defamed as much real damage, because they operate in a bigger market, there may still be a "grapevine effect", but it may not have as big an impact as in a regional area.

The law of course is now having to deal with defamation in the context of social media. Recommendations or criticisms on social media can have a large impact on businesses.

I am sure many readers, when they are looking to take a holiday, will check out "Trip Advisor" and make a decision on where to stay based, at least in part, on comments from other customers.

That however is a topic for another day.

And for the last words, from Marvin Gaye:

"People say believe half of what you see, Son, and none of what you hear.

I can’t help bein’ confused…

Don’t you know …"

Details: agoode@mellorolsson.com.au or (08) 8414 3400

Practice Area: Court Litigation & Dispute Resolution

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