Last Friday, the British Columbia Court of Appeal overturned a judgment against the Prince George Free Press, saying that the paper’s original article was “substantially true” and the paper had proved truth as its defence at trial.
On July 18, 1999, the paper reported on an incident in the Mama Panda Restaurant in Prince George in which a customer had vomited on buffet tables, and included comments by the Region’s Chief Environmental Health Officer on the restaurant’s clean-up. The vomit carried the Norwalk Virus and at least 13 people fell ill.
The business in the restaurant fell off after publication of the article. After several strategies for rebuilding business, it closed for good in September, 2002.
P.G. Restaurant Ltd., the company operating the Mama Panda Restaurant, sued the health officer, the reporter, Michelle Lang, the publisher, Lorne Doerkson, and the editor, Cameron McAlpine (as well as Cariboo Press (1969) Ltd., the corporate publisher of the paper).
The case proceeded to trial for three and a half weeks in August and September of 2003 and a judgment was rendered by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Goepel in early March of 2004, granting the restaurant company damages in the amount of $633,423, being approximately half of the business losses claimed by the restaurant company.
The journalists and the newspaper appealed and they were completely successful, on the basis that the original report in the newspaper was substantially true and the case should be dismissed.
Unanimous Reasons for Judgment of the Court of Appeal were written by Madam Justice Mary Saunders and agreed with by Justices Thackray and Oppal. Because truth is a complete defence, it was not necessary for the Court of Appeal to consider the other ground of appeal, that the report was privileged.
Although not necessary because the case was dismissed, the Court of Appeal did state that damages as assessed at trial were excessive and “would need to be reduced by a significant amount” if there had been any liability.
Free Press publisher Dennis Chapman said, “It is a great relief that the courts have recognized the efforts of our reporter and editors to get the story straight.”