Former employee of cosmetic clinic sued for defamation on Instagram story

12th Aug 2021

In the case of BeautyFULL CMC Pty Ltd & Ors v Hayes [2021] QDC 111, the Brisbane District Court awarded $82,500 in damages to a cosmetic surgery clinic after it took a former employee to court for defamation on Instagram.

This judgment breaks new ground in social media defamation awards, as an Instagram story is usually visible for 24 hours only.

Defamatory claims made about clinic’s owners

The dispute arose after the clinic posted a photo on its Instagram account showing the founder and two workers in uniforms, with the caption: ‘Dr Margaret, Nurse Kate and Nurse Kayleigh serving during COVID-19’.

The former employee re-shared the photo to her Instagram story, saying that she was not ‘naming and shaming’, ‘[B]ut when I see a company upload a FAKE photo that a medical practitioner is going to work on the frontline during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s disgusting and disrespectful to the people who are actually putting their lives at risk to save others’.

The former employee went on to say: ‘I would love to thank the REAL hero’s [sic] that are working day and night to save lives. Coronavirus (COVID-19) it’s such a serious situation that I don’t understand why a company would lie about it.’

Court finds no basis of truth in defamatory Instagram post

The defendant’s lawyers argued the defence of truth, but their case was not helped when the defendant did not give evidence at the trial.

In his ruling, Reid DCJ found that it appeared naming and shaming was exactly what was intended in the defendant’s Instagram story and it was designed to cause hurt and distress.

His Honour stated that the former employee was motivated by ‘unexplained anger and resentment’ towards the clinic and the posts were ‘intentionally false’ with no basis. His Honour accepted that the clinic had suffered loss of business reputation as a result of the defamation.

Reid DCJ further declared that social media posts were often infected by ‘personal grievances aired in an obnoxious manner and are often not a reliable source of information’ (at [20]).

The law applied in this case was the Queensland Defamation Act 2005. Comparable legislation in NSW is the Defamation Act 2005.

Instagram defamation costly regardless of audience size

This case demonstrates that the courts are willing to take action, even if there are relatively few recipients of the defamatory posts.

The former employee involved had an Instagram account with just 1,844 followers. The clinic’s Instagram account had 19,700 followers.

Caution before posting to avoid defamation charge

The outcome of this case and the judge’s comments about social media highlight the fact that defamation awards are not limited to mass media newspapers and TV networks.

People who feel defamed on social media are winning substantial damages, even if the audience reach is small.

Legal action can be taken by the victims and while there are defences under the law such as truth, this can often be hard to prove in court. Advise your clients always to post with caution.

This is an edited version of an article first published at Stacks Law.

Anneka Frayne is the Director of Stacks Law Firm in Tamworth, working in family law, wills and estates and disputes and litigation.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

Learn about how you can get involved and contribute an article

Tags: defamation