Judge orders social media user to pay hefty award over Facebook posts

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (CMC) — A high court judge has awarded chief executive officer of North Central Regional Health Authority (NCRHA), Davlin Thomas, more than one million dollars in damages after ruling that several social media posts constituted personal attacks against him.

Justice Margaret Mohammed ordered Naresh Siewah to pay Thomas general damages in the sum of TT$800,000 inclusive of aggravated damages, together with interest at the rate of 2.5 per cent per annum from June 24, 2020 to the date of judgment.

Siewah was also ordered to pay exemplary damages in the sum of TT$100,000, and to refrain from publishing or causing to be published and/or from republishing or causing to be republished any words, statements and/or innuendos defamatory of Thomas.

He was also directed to issue an apology and public retraction in writing to Thomas, with the public statement taking the same form of the original defamatory publication, and being an equally highlighted post published on his Facebook profile and the other Facebook profiles that he shared the posts on.

Siewah was further ordered to pay Thomas's costs in the sum of TT$101,500.

The court heard that 14 defamatory statements had been published between March to June 2020, on various social media platforms, by Siewah.

In her ruling on Thursday, the judge said the posts on Siewah's personal Facebook page and the group Facebook pages TrinbagoLivesMatter and The Voice Of TnT 99% had constituted personal attacks against Thomas.

Thomas, who is also a senior official of the National Carnival Commission (NCC), had sought damages which included aggravated and exemplary damages; special damages; and damages for the republication of Facebook posts by third parties.

In addition, he had also sought to obtain an injunction to prohibit Siewah and others from further publishing or causing to be published any words, statements and/or innuendos defaming him; an apology and public retraction in writing by Siewah which would take the same form of the original defamatory publications.

Siewah denied that he had spoken or published certain words set out in the Facebook posts, and that the words complained of did not refer to Thomas.

He told the court that while they could not be understood to bear or be capable of bearing the alleged defamatory meanings, they were mere words of heat and that they were protected by qualified privilege.

But Thomas, in his application, argued that the Facebook posts were inaccurate, misleading, disparaging, defamatory and malicious, and portrayed him in a negative light through the use of unfounded allegations of corruption, misbehaviour in public office, nepotism and fraud.

He said also that the published words were broadcast in a sensational and prominent manner and with reckless disregard as to the accuracy thereof and as to whether the words were libellous.

Thomas said the posts inferred, among other things, that he had committed wrongdoings at NCRHA.

His attorneys had issued a pre-action protocol letter to Siewah on June 9, 2020, following which he acknowledged receipt the day after and apologised and removed the posts from his personal Facebook profile.

After accepting the mistake of posting the allegations and assuring Thomas there would not be a repeat of such actions, Siewah told Thomas that his personal Facebook account was hacked and that certain posts were generated by one "Johnny Walker".

Thomas told the court that the publications occurred over a span of two and a half months and that Siewah would have known about them but did not remove them.

Thomas said he suffered shame and embarrassment due to the allegations, and that Siewah's actions had brought him into public odium and disrepute while exposing him to public ridicule and contempt.

Thomas said his family, including his wife and children, had been severely affected by the allegations which have left them traumatised by the persistent and relentless attacks od Siewah.

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