30 August 2012


In Prendergast v Roberts [2012] QSC 144 the Queensland Supreme Court has awarded $50,000 damages in defamation over a building dispute.

Builder Trevor Prendergast sued Shane Roberts, who had entered into a building contract with Prendergast in late 2008 and early 2009 for construction of a workshop. The job was not finished in early 2009 when Prendergast gave Roberts the keys to the defendant for the place. The defendant moved his business there in February 2009. Later that month Roberts wrote a letter of complaint to the plaintiff about the building works (eg that the concrete was breaking inside and there were cracks in the workshop floor). In May 2009 the pair had an acrimonious meeting at the site, with both parties then engaging lawyers about the quality of the building works. In August 2009 the plaintiff gained an adjudication certificate on the works under the Building and Construction Industry Payments Act 2004 (Qld), followed by the defendant’s company initiating proceedings in December to stop the certificate being enforced and then suing Prendergast for damages in the Supreme Court.

Roberts meanwhile made several separate statements about the plaintiff to various people in the building industry in Queensland, which Prendergast considered were defamatory. Roberts denied making the statements. On to the Supreme Court for separate defamation action!

After a three day trial the jury found that the statements were made. It also found that the statements were defamatory, with Roberts having defamed the plaintiff by telling people that Prendergast was an incompetent builder, was a dishonest builder and had a reputation so bad that any person doing business with him was ruining their own reputation.

Roberts did not rely on a defence of truth or fair comment. The trial centred on the effect of the statements on the plaintiff’s reputation, with Roberts arguing that although Prendergast had been defamed, the effect was so trivial that damages should be only $50. That argument reflected evidence that the statements were not in writing and that the statements did not alter the positive view that the recipients of the statements had of Prendergast.

Prendergast gave evidence of depression and counselling. The Court referred to Carson v John Fairfax & Sons Ltd [1993] HCA 31; (1993) 178 CLR 44 in noting that "It is common ground that an award of general damages for defamation serves three purposes which overlap, being to compensate the plaintiff for the harm to his reputation, to compensate for the hurt and distress caused by the publication, and to vindicate his reputation".

The Court considered that there had been injury, with Mullins J commenting that
I have no hesitation in accepting that the defamatory statements were a significant cause of the emotional problems that resulted in the plaintiff obtaining medical assistance. This was supported by the evidence of Mrs Prendergast who observed the plaintiff at this time becoming increasingly uncommunicative and unsociable and increasing his frequency of drinking alcohol. The plaintiff’s distress on becoming aware of the defamatory statements was compounded by his concern for those whose work had depended on him, including Mr Simpson and Mr Shore. It was apparent from the plaintiff’s embarrassment whilst giving evidence and the emotion that was still evident that he has been hurt and distressed significantly by the making of the defamatory statements. 
It awarded $50,000 rather than $50 damages.

In the earlier McGrane v Channel Seven Brisbane Pty Ltd [2012] QSC 133 the same Court struck out convicted murderer Michael McGrane's claim of 7 April 2011 and amended statement of claim filed 9 December 2011 (with prisoner McGrane seeking $95 million damages), ordering that the plaintiff pay the broadcaster's costs. The Court referred to the comment by Martin J in McGrane v BTQ Channel 7 [2011] QSC 290 that
This is a ludicrous claim and one which merely highlights the grossly unsatisfactory nature of the claim itself. The claims for damages for loss of income and loss of a right to a fair trial are, in the circumstances of Mr McGrane serving a life sentence, nonsensical.
It went on to conclude that
The plaintiff appears not to have taken his Honour’s hint. The amount claimed now exceeds $95,000,000. The articulation of such a ridiculous claim bespeaks complete disconnection from reality. It would be an insult to our system of justice to permit such nonsensical claims to stand. ....
This plaintiff has had numerous opportunities to present an intelligible case. He has failed to do so. Indeed, his claim has gone from being ludicrous to ridiculous. 
In my opinion, the plaintiff has squandered his opportunities to present a proper, comprehensible claim. I see no reason why the defendant should be put to further cost or why the Court should be expected to devote further resources to this matter.