Lawson v. Baines


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This decision is about liability for defamatory innuendo. Although the plaintiffs statement of claim originally alleged that there was literal defamation, that claim was abandoned. The Court evaluated a passage from a newspaper column without examining the truth of the statements (since literal falsehood was not (finally) alleged by the plaintiff, nor was truth of the implied meaning plead by the defendants). The Court determined whether on a balance of probabilities, the ordinary reader would subscribe to the a defamatory interpretation of the phrases used.

[9] In this case Senator Lawson relies on what is known as a “false” or “popular” innuendo. He submits that, properly understood, the words complained of bear the meanings attributed to them in paragraph 15 of the statement of claim. The defendants deny that the words complained of bear the defamatory meanings attributed to them. They do not plead justification with respect to the meaning alleged in paragraph 15 of the statement of claim, that is, they do not allege that if the words bear that meaning they are true. They do however assert and plead that the literal meaning of the words is true.

Justice Sewell was able to determine that out of all the potential interpretations available only two could "possibly" be born by the disputed sentences:

[41] In my view the words complained of could possibly bear two inferential meanings. The first is that alleged in paragraph 15 of the statement of claim. The second is that Senator Lawson is a unethical person of poor judgment, who allows himself to become involved with questionable individuals and organizations and to gain from such involvement.

[42] I do not think that Senator Lawson can succeed if the words bear only the second inferential meaning. I say this because to my mind that meaning would be distinct and of a different character from the defamatory meaning alleged in the statement of claim. If such is the case, Senator Lawson will not have succeeded in proving the allegations contained in paragraph 15 of the statement of claim.
[43] I note that the words complained of do not directly deal with the main point of Mr. Baines’ column, which was clearly to expose the questionable promotion of Arctic Oil & Gas. However, in my view, the comments made about Senator Lawson in the column were included for the purpose of showing that one of the directors of Arctic Oil & Gas was a person of questionable judgment or integrity.

Full Decision

Full decision as published on B.C. Supreme Court Website: Lawson v. Baines, 2011 BCSC 326.

News Coverage

Former senator wins libel lawsuit: Judge says words used in column were 'defamatory',Vancouver Sun.

Court says Vancouver columnist libelled former senator, CTV News

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