Pedavoli v Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd [2014] NSWSC 1674

In December 2013 a female teacher resigned from St Aloysius College after allegations were made that she had engaged in unlawful sexual misconduct.

In January 2014 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article which, through the careless inclusion of incorrect information, mistakenly identified Melinda Pedavoli as the teacher concerned. This was false. It was in fact a different teacher.

The article made out that Ms Pedavoli had engaged in sexual relationships with two boys in Year Twelve at the school, and that after an internal investigation she had been made to resign.

Ms Pedavoli had, in fact, never resigned from the school and had no association with the alleged misconduct.

The judge emphasised the seriousness of the allegations; in his words the “seriousness of the defamation could scarcely be any worse”.

It was clear that the article imputed that the plaintiff was “predatory, sexual and self-interested”, that she had used her students for sexual gratification, that she had broken child protections laws, likely committed a criminal offence and also that she had been forced to resign because of serious workplace misconduct.

The judge was not, however, convinced that there was an imputation that the plaintiff was a paedophile – the ordinary reasonable reader would have understood “paedophile” to mean a person who has a sexual interest in much younger children.

The defendants contended that, irrespective of the seriousness of the allegations, because the publication had not mentioned the plaintiff by name, but only by occupation and age, there was only a small circle of people who could have identified the plaintiff from the article. The defendants asserted that this circle was exclusively made up of close friends, family and colleagues of the plaintiff – all of whom were either aware that the allegations actually concerned a different teacher, or knew that the plaintiff was still in continuous employment at the school and could therefore not be the subject of the article.

They argued that the harm to the plaintiff’s reputation would have been minimal. The judge rejected this because the seriousness of the allegations had led thousands of readers of the article to search for the school’s online staff list and it was clear that they had identified the plaintiff as the teacher described in the article.

The plaintiff could provide a large body of evidence to this fact. This included vicious comments on Youtube and the Rate My Teacher website, Google analytics of the school’s online staff list which showed a dramatic spike in visitors after the article went live and evidence from the plaintiff that she had been contacted by numerous people who were under the misapprehension that the allegations concerned her.

All of these instances showed irrefutable evidence that the plaintiff’s reputation had been seriously harmed among a much wider circle of people than contended by the defendants.

The judge believed that it was clear that the article would have hurt and humiliated the plaintiff, and that the reputational damage upon her friendships and career were likely to have been immense.

An apology was made by the defendants, but it was barely noticeable. Unlike the prominence of the original article, it was only available at the very bottom of the newspaper’s online homepage and in a section of the print edition of the newspaper which was unlikely to attract the original audience’s attention. In the judge’s view it was unlikely to have corrected the reputational damage of the original article.

Only the prompt correction of the online version of the article and the failure to name the plaintiff in the article prevented this from falling into the very worst category of defamation.

The judge ruled in favour of the plaintiff. The maximum cap on compensation for defamation is fixed by legislation at $366,000. In reflection of the seriousness of the defamation, the plaintiff was awarded a sum of $350,000 with interest at the rate of 3 per cent in compensation.

It is noticeable that in this case the compensation awarded was close to the full amount allowable recognising the severity of the allegations made.