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Businesswoman Elaine Stead awarded $280,000 in defamation damages

Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston had in various articles described former Blue Sky Alternative Investments director Elaine Stead as a “feminist cretin” who “set fire to other people’s money”, with an investment in an “unviable enterprise”. The articles also alleged Dr Stead  had “recklessly destroyed the capital of business ventures” and she was a “stupid” woman “who made stupid investments into worthless companies”.

Federal Court judge Justice Michael Lee has found that Elaine Stead was defamed by Aston, and that the pleaded defence of “honest opinion” had not been made out by either Aston or Nine’s Fairfax Media.

When assessing damages, Justice Lee wrote that:

302    As authorised by s 39 of the Act, and given the close connexion between the causes of action upon which Dr Stead has succeeded, I propose to assess damages in a single sum. Although I have explained above the relevant principles and findings relevant to the impressionistic process of fixing upon an appropriate solatium for hurt to feelings, damage to reputation and vindication in one lump sum, in this assessment it is worth stressing two aspects which have particular importance.

303    Dr Stead is unmarried and has no children. She gave evidence (at T216), which had some evident force, that “the only thing I had in my life was my work”; she also gave evidence that “as a venture capitalist, my reputation is everything … It’s the only thing I have. It’s the only thing any fund manager has”.

304    This is an example of a case where the damage to reputation has occurred in circumstances where a person’s professional standing is affected, like in Crampton, where Mahoney ACJ said (at 193A):

In some cases, a person’s reputation is, in a relevant sense, his whole life. The reputation of a clerk for financial honesty and of a solicitor for integrity are illustrations of this.

305    It follows that the appropriate and rational relationship between the harm sustained and the amount of damages awarded should reflect the fact that the law places a high value upon reputation and in particular upon the reputation of those whose work and life depends upon, among other things, their judgment: see Crampton (at 195D per Mahoney ACJ).

306    Further, as I have explained, this is a case where Dr Stead did experience a high degree of subjective hurt to feelings aggravated by the campaign that had been and was being maintained against her.

307    It is difficult to identify comparables, but in considering the appropriate and rational relationship between harm and amount, I have had regard to the general tenor of awards (including those where a person’s professional standing is affected) as part of the process of synthesis of the relevant matters to which I have referred. Weighing up all the factors, I have concluded that the appropriate award of ordinary and aggravated compensatory damages is $280,000.

Justice Lee has stood the case over for seven days to deal with any argument on the grant of relief, interest and costs, before making final orders.

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