VANCOUVER – A British Columbia bride has been ordered to pay more than $100,000 to a wedding photographer for unleashing an online torrent of defamatory comments that eventually destroyed the business.
The B.C. Supreme Court judgement says the attack on the integrity, ethics and reputation of Amara Wedding and its owner, Kitty Chan, was carried out by bride Emily Liao “with all her might.”
In his ruling released Feb. 22, Justice Gordon Weatherill says Liao’s “mission was to expose what she wrongly perceived as a corrupt business. He says Liao used the internet so her views would be widely read and cause “as much damage as possible” to Chan’s reputation and business.
“That goal was successful,” Weatherill says in the written ruling released online. “The case is an example of the dangers of using the internet to publish information without proper regard for its accuracy,” he says.
The decision says Liao hired Chan to photograph her July 4, 2015, wedding and provide a package of services valued just over $6,000, but days before the nuptials, Liao disapproved of the pre-wedding photos and stopped payment.
Chan’s staff completed the contract and withheld the photos and videos pending full payment, prompting Liao to begin a small claims action that ended in 2016 entirely in favour of the photographer.
But before the small claims decision, Weatherill says Liao maintained an “unrelenting,” nearly year-long assault using Chinese- and English-language social media sites to accuse Chan and her business of everything from “lying to consumers,” to “extortion” and “fraud.”
Liao testified in court that she posted the publications because she had been deceived and lied to and thought the contract had been breached. She claimed the defence of fair comment – that her statements were a matter of public interest and based on fact.
But Weatherill says Liao failed to prove the statements were true. “Indeed, the evidence is overwhelming that none of them were true.”
“There is no doubt that (Liao) was dissatisfied with what she perceived as poor quality wedding photographs.
However, she has failed to prove that her displeasure was justified,” the judge says.
Weatherill awarded Chan $75,000 in general damages and found Liao’s “high-handed or oppressive” conduct merited aggravated damages of $15,000 and $25,000 in punitive damages for what he calls “persistent malice” towards Chan.
“(Liao,) and others who think it is acceptable to use the internet as a vehicle to vent their frustrations, must be given the message that there will be consequences if their publications are defamatory,” Weatherill says.
The judge also noted Liao’s false allegations posted on Chinese-language blogs, forums and social media sites were aimed specifically at causing “tremendous harm” to Chan’s reputation with her mainly Chinese clientele.
In awarding Chan the total of $115,000, Weatherill says he found there was “no coincidence” between the start of Liao’s cyber tirade and the sudden evaporation of Chan’s previously healthy wedding business.
Amara Wedding laid off its employees and closed in January 2017. Chan continues to work with her husband Kevin Leung, assisting him in his role as a wedding officiant, although the judgement says the services offered by the couple are “not as extensive” as Chan’s previous business.
Leung said that they had been planning to expand their business around the time Liao’s barrage began.
“Not only did potential customers chose to stay away from us, photographers and other wedding professionals did not want to work with us and were gossiping about my wife’s business practice and integrity,” he said in an email from Japan, where he and Chan are vacationing.
The cyber attacks caused Chan both financial and mental suffering, Leung said, but the court decision has brought some relief.
“We realized that we had to fight until the end because we wanted to prove that people have to face any consequences when you say something on the internet,” he said.