How the term ‘coward punch’ won a $100,000 defamation payout

20th Feb 2020

For many years the families of ‘king-hit’ victims have argued that this term conveys a false measure of admiration and implies manliness on the part of the attacker. Demands for a new phrase to describe such despicable one-punch surprise attacks have led to ‘king-hit’ being replaced by the term ‘coward punch’, reflecting the cowardly act that it is.

Use of term ‘coward punch’ intended to deter assailants

Language is a powerful tool – in society and in law. Replacing the term ‘king-hit’ with ‘coward punch’ means that assailants acquire a public label which casts them in a negative light.

It is terminology intended to give would-be attackers think twice before inflicting a one-punch attack, which can lead to serious injury and even death.

British tourist sues Nine Network for defamation after being linked with term ‘coward punch’

In 2019, a British tourist was awarded a significant payout in a defamation case against Nine News for linking him with the term ‘coward punch’.

The tourist had been involved in an altercation outside a Sydney kebab shop with Rugby Sevens star James Stannard. He was charged with grievous bodily harm and ended up in court, where he was found not guilty after successfully arguing that Stannard had struck him first and he was acting in self-defence.

Nine News reported on the court case, declaring that the coward punch had ended Stannard’s career. The newsreader went on to observe that Stannard had ‘just watched the man accused of coward punching him walk free’. Nine then followed this with footage of Stannard outside court, saying: ‘I feel like the truth didn’t come out in the hearing’.

The tourist sued Channel Nine for defamation on the basis that the report implied that he was guilty of a ‘coward punch’ despite his acquittal. He claimed his reputation had been damaged and he was constantly questioned about the incident, even when he applied for jobs in London.

Under the NSW Defamation Act 2005 a person whose reputation is harmed by the publication of defamatory matter is entitled to an effective and fair remedy.

Appearance and usage of term ‘coward punch’

In his judgment, Lee J observed that the term ‘coward punch’ first appeared in the 2017 Macquarie dictionary as an alternative to the term ‘king-hit’: Oliver v Nine Network Australia Pty Ltd [2019] FCA 583. Justice Lee held at [55] that:

'The expression coward punch has come to be used as a way of signalling a deprecation of a violent act which is thought (by those employing the more contemporary term) not to be sufficiently brought home by the use of a term such as king-hit or, to use an Americanism, a ‘sucker punch. That is because it describes a characteristic of the perpetrator of such an act: that in hitting a defenceless person in an unprovoked manner, the actor is not only committing a violent act but also, distinctly, is contemptibly lacking the courage to act in a proper or fair way.'

Acquitted tourist awarded $100,000 in damages

In his ruling Lee J said that Nine had imputed that the acquitted tourist was a coward and that he had engaged in the serious act of punching a defenceless man, causing him significant injury and ending his career as a professional athlete.

Accepting that the tourist had a previous reputation for being decent and unaggressive, the judge went on to award him $100,000 in damages.

This article was first published on Stack Law Firm website here. 

Michael McHugh is the solicitor director in the Tamworth office of Stacks Law Firm. As an Accredited Specialist in Property Law, Michael has experience handling many successful property transactions, including property development, conveyancing and matters related to wills and estates. 

Michael works on matters related to mortgages and securities, mergers and acquisitions and commercial litigation. He has worked in the areas of agribusiness and finance for major regional lenders. His work also encompasses estate litigation and dispute resolution. 
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).

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Tags: NSW Assault defamation Michael McHugh