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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sydney Indian mum’s Facebook post leads to lawsuit

Breaking down a recent defamation case against an Indian woman in Sydney and what it means for those who post online.

Reading Time: 3 minutesWe’ve all been there, or at least thought about it – sharing a bad experience with a company on social media for family, friends, and acquaintances to read. But ever wondered what happens if said company catches wind of your post, and takes you to court for defamation?

For Preeti Arya, a woman based in Sydney, this became a reality when she shared a post on the Facebook group Desi Mums Connect (Sydney) about her miserable flight experience to India. In a surprising turn of events, the travel company Aaren Pty Ltd (trading as Price Beat Travel) sued her, considering the post an untrue record of events.

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AT A GLANCE

  • In 2018, Preeti Arya from Sydney shared her bad experience with a travel company on Facebook
  • She was sued for defamation, but won the case – mostly due to the company’s size
  • Things you should keep in mind while posting on social media

Travelling to Chennai to be with her sister, who was in a critical condition following a lung transplant, Preeti had arranged with Price Beat Travel to fly out of Sydney the next day. She paid for a bassinet and baby food as her 18-month-old daughter was travelling with her, but Malaysia Airlines had no record of such payment.

Enduring embarrassment and a miserable flight across the world, Preeti, like any frustrated social media user, complained on the Facebook group in July 2018. Then came the lawsuit.

Is the travel company too big a corporation to take her to court? Was the post intended to promote ‘the welfare of society’ or did it ruin the company’s credibility? In a case like this, who wins?

As the District Court of New South Wales found recently on 2 November, Preeti. And the reasons for this can help others determine if their online posts are defamatory.

The biggest issue in this case was the size of Price Beat Travel (Aaren Pty Ltd)). Current defamation laws disallow companies exceeding 10 employees to sue for defamation. Price Beat Travel argued they were below this limit, as only five people worked in their Harris Park office. Lawyers for Arya contended this number was not truthful as it didn’t include the 30 to 40 call centre staff they had employed in India as part of their business.

On this, Justice Alastair Abadee found that these call centre staff were indeed employees of Aaren Pty Ltd; they are, as a result, a corporation too large to bring a defamation claim.

The travel company might’ve lost the case, but they could find comfort in one thing – Justice Abadee did find Arya’s post to be partly defamatory. Instead of the real issue of being cheated out of a bassinet and baby food by Malaysia Airlines, she had posted about how Price Beat Travel did not allow for this by way of a lost payment.

The justice also upheld her defences of honest opinion on the grounds that Preeti was simply reporting ‘her experience with the ultimate intention of expressing a recommendation’ and intended to inform a discrete community (the Facebook mother’s group) about the quality of services by the company.

So what does this mean for the thousands of social media users who write posts and review services in Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats?

Currently, there are a lot of protections available for the people posting. If your post is truthful, made as a result of an honest opinion, or in the public interest, you will likely be safe from any defamation cases being brought against you. Alternatively, if the corporation exceeds 10 employees, they are deemed too big to bring a court case; here, the individual David is protected against the large Goliath.

Of course, one must post cautiously. These general rules require a significant amount of evidence to uphold, with an extensive knowledge of past cases and current statute law to understand entirely. Social media can be a great platform to voice opinions, but it’s easy to forget that your words, like a Facebook post coming from frustration and anger, carry weight.

Individuals can still bring actions against individuals, overcoming the corporation rule. Just because you believe something is true does not legally make it so unless you comprehensively justify your position.

Furthermore, with a nationwide reconsideration of current defamation laws and their compatibility with online networks, what may or may not fit within the definition of ‘defamation’ is likely to change extremely quickly.

For Preeti, at least, she and her child can rest easily.

Note: This post does not intend to provide legal advice. If you have a legal issue, you require assistance with please contact a specialised law firm or practitioner.

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Manan Luthra
Writer, cricket fan, gin and tonic enthusiast. Emerging journalist passionate about art, sport, and education

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