Home Featured Email wording churns defamation waters among board members at New Brunswick yacht club

Email wording churns defamation waters among board members at New Brunswick yacht club

by HR Law Canada

“Not sure why the [sic] Noel, Ian and Hugh would lie about that.”

That single sentence, sent in one email to 11 people at the Poine du Chêne Yacht Club in New Brunswick, led to a defamation lawsuit between two long-standing members of the club.

“Words matter,” the Court of King’s Bench of New Brunswick said in the ruling. ” And the context in which words they find themselves uttered is even more important.”

Email about resignation of club’s GM

HM, a former director and executive of the Yacht Club, initiated the lawsuit against fellow member and past director, RAR, over comments made in an email concerning the resignation of the club’s general manager, RL.

The heart of the dispute centered around RAR’s forwarding of an email from RL, which questioned why certain members of the Yacht Club’s executive, including HM, would allegedly mislead about receiving a critical “to do list” or “list of improvements” RL had left behind.

The series of events began in July 2021 when RAR and newly hired director RL discussed necessary improvements and safety measures for the Yacht Club. Following RL’s resignation, he informed the executive board, including HM, of a list of suggested improvements, which HM noted but claimed never to have received in written form.

RL claimed to have left documents on an office computer and a USB key with board member IM. However, this led to misunderstandings among board members about the existence and receipt of these documents. RAR, seeking clarification, forwarded an email from RL to other board members, questioning the honesty of the executive board about receiving RL’s list, which sparked allegations of lying and miscommunication.

Town hall meeting

Following a Town Hall meeting, where the issue of transparency was highlighted, RAR and HM engaged in email exchanges with the board, with HM insisting no written documents were received and outlining the events leading to RL’s resignation.

Meanwhile, board member NE and HM were implicated in the alleged misinformation, leading to further internal conflict.

The situation escalated when RL issued an apology and retraction for his statements, which was requested by HM. HM also sought a similar apology from RAR, which was not provided.

HM sought summary judgment, claiming defamation by RAR through the email’s publication, which he argued damaged his reputation. He sought $3,000 in damages.

RAR, in his defense, sought to dismiss the claim, arguing that it did not meet the defamation threshold and alternatively that it was a fair comment on a matter of public interest. The court’s decision leaned heavily on the context in which the impugned words were communicated, ultimately finding that the words, when taken with the surrounding circumstances, did not constitute defamation.

“Despite missing a question mark at the end of the sentence, I find the words constituted a question rather than a statement or an attack on (HM),” the Court said. “The Claimant is not accused of being a liar, although such an inference could be made when reading the question in the absence of its context.”

The question is aimed at determining whether RL left a document outlining repairs to be conducted either as upgrades or security updates, the Court said.

“The question is legitimate in the face of the conflicting information received from (RL) and members of the Board’s executive. The context cannot be disassociated from the comments,” it said.

In the end, HM’s motion for summary judgment was denied, while RAR’s motion succeeded, leading to the dismissal of the defamation claim.

For more information, see Hugh Murphy v Robert Andrew Rodgers, 2024 NBKB 30 (CanLII).

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