In Raynor v Murray  NSWDC 189 the New South Wales District Court has held that remarks sent in an email to the chairperson of an owners corporation that copied in all owners and occupiers within the scheme were defamatory.
The case came about after the owners corporation’s mail boxes were broken into. The defendant, an occupier in the scheme, refused to lock her mail box or did not lock it all the time. The plaintiff, the chairperson of the owners corporation sent four emails to the defendant personally over approximately six months. The first was a “welcome” email, the second was in regards to a noisy late party and the third was a reminder to lock her mail box. After the mail box break-ins, the plaintiff emailed all lot owners and occupiers a reminder to lock their mail boxes. The defendant wrote back to the plaintiff and said they would not lock their mail box. In response to the defendant’s email the plaintiff explained that he had been advised by a locksmith that it was best to keep all mail boxes locked to avoid further thefts.
However, it was the email that the defendant sent to the plaintiff copying in all owners and occupiers in the scheme that was the subject in the case. The email contained, amongst other things, the words “criminal”, “stalk/staking” “fixation”, “thief/thieves” and “…to avoid further harassment, I’ve not replied to your provoking mailbox emails. However your consistent attempt to shame me publicly is cowardly. It is also offensive, harassing and menacing through the use of technology to threaten me. Please stop!”.
The defendant pleaded honest opinion, justification, and triviality as defences to the defamation claim. However, ultimately, the Court found in favour of the plaintiff holding that defendant had used “… the strongest adjectives she could find, in order to embarrass the plaintiff and make him look as if his conduct was criminal, without having any basis for the making of such allegations”, and that every sentence in the defendants email “stuck a blow at the plaintiff, and was intended to ridicule and humiliate him in every way”. In contrast, the Court found the plaintiff was polite in his correspondence with the defendant.
As far as duties of strata committee members and owners corporations were concerned, these were not expressly pleaded so they were only touched on in the judgement, however, the Court found that given that there had been break-ins to the mail box, the plaintiff’s correspondence was “reasonable and proportionate”. Further, it was held that the strata committee’s decision to go to mediation with Fair Trading in regards to the issue of the unlocked mail box was proper conduct and not harassing, threatening or menacing conduct.
What lessons can owners, occupiers, committee members and strata managers can learn from this case?
- Be careful when responding to chain emails.
- Think carefully about who you’re emailing information to.
- Do not make false allegations you know to be false.
Be courteous in your email correspondence.