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Plaintiffs Awarded Damages Over Racism Allegations on Instagram and Twitter

The court recently recently released a decision in an interesting defamation action involving comments made on social media. The facts of the decision in Lavallee et al. v. Isak, 2021 ONSC 6661, are as follows:

[1]  On May 30, 2020, Justine Lavallee, Shania Lavallee, and Gilmour Driscoll-Maurice (Shania’s boyfriend) were play fighting.  Shania took a short video (15-20 seconds in length) of Justine and Gilmour wrestling and horsing around (the “Video”).  Shania posted the Video to Snapchat and shared it with a select group of her friends on Snapchat.

[2] Unbeknownst to Shania, one of her followers took a screenshot of one scene in the Video and shared it with her own followers.  The screenshot depicted Justine face down on the ground with Gilmour on top of her.  He was holding Justine’s hands behind her back and his knee was in the middle of her back (the “Screenshot”).

[3] Solit Isak received a copy of this Screenshot and shared it with her own followers, denouncing the actions of Justine, Shania, and Gilmour, as racist.   Solit was of the view that they were not simply play fighting.  Solit accused them of mocking George Floyd’s death.

[4] Solit invited her followers on Instagram and Twitter to join her in identifying and denouncing the behaviour of Justine, Shania, and Gilmour. 

[5]  Prior to Solit’s first post on her social media accounts, the parties did not know each other, nor had they ever communicated with one another. 

[6] Solit’s online campaign against Justine, Shania, and Gilmour was successful.  Justine was summarily fired from her job with the Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA”) and she was unable to secure employment with the government or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“RCMP”).  Shania was fired from her waitressing job at Boston Pizza.  Shania was investigated by the Ontario College of Teachers.  The Ottawa Catholic School Board (“OCSB”) rescinded their offer of employment.  The Plaintiffs’ home was vandalized, their neighbour’s car seriously damaged, and their friends and family were subjected to death threats and harassing phone calls and social media messages. 

Shania Lavallee and Justine Lavallee sued Solit Isak for defamation. On a summary judgment motion, Justice M. Smith granted judgment in favour the plaintiffs.

Justice Smith held that the defendant’s comments were defamatory, containing serious accusations of improper conduct which would lead a reasonable person to think and conclude that the plaintiffs are racists.

Justice Smith rejected the defences of justification and fair comment. He indicated that the defendant’s social media allegations against the plaintiffs have no basis in fact. He further stated that the defendant did not act with malice and that her dominant motive was to denounce racism, but she “…acted hastily, used poor judgment, and jumped to conclusions on unsubstantiated evidence”. 

The plaintiffs were each awarded general damages of $50,000. The defendant was ordered to remove all social media posts about the plaintiffs. The defendant was also permanently prohibited from publishing any defamatory statements, or encouraging any other person to publish defamatory statements, about the plaintiffs.