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Damages for defamation: Rebel Wilson case study

Australian actress Rebel Wilson has today been awarded $4.5 million in damages for defamation arising from Bauer Media's publications, in which it portrayed Ms Wilson as a 'liar' in relation to her age and upbringing.

In June 2017, a jury found the publications were defamatory and today, the judge handed down his decision with respect to her damages.

Damages above and beyond

The actress was awarded $650,000 in general damages to compensate her for hurt feelings and stress caused by the publication. This is a significant result, as it exceeds the statutory limit of $389,000 for damages in defamation cases.

When handing down his decision, the judge found Ms Wilson should be awarded aggravated damages due to the malicious nature of Bauer Media's conduct. Knowing the statements were false, Bauer Media issued the publications regardless, attempting to capitalise on the release of Ms Wilson's film Pitch Perfect 2. They were also heavily criticised for their conduct throughout all stages of the case, from the publication, their dealings with Ms Wilson and for running a defence with no prospects of success.

Wilson's lost opportunities

In relation to economic damage, Ms Wilson was awarded $3.9 million for losses associated with not receiving offers for lucrative movie roles after Pitch Perfect 2. While the judge did not accept that Ms Wilson lost any specific roles because of the publications, he did find that she lost the opportunity of receiving offers for approximately three roles, each paying an estimated $5 million. Discounting the award by 80% in accordance with legal principles, the judge arrived at the final figure of $3.9 million for economic loss.

A novel case for defamation

Ms Wilson's claim is a unique case for defamation law because of her celebrity status and the fact that the matter was strenuously defended by Bauer to trial, without any compromise or apology offered along the way. Often, high profile cases such as this are settled before the matter even reaches the court.

Paving the way for future cases

The judge's decision provides comprehensive guidelines in relation to the assessment of damages for defamation in Australia, which will now be heavily relied on by defamation practitioners in advising their clients and prosecuting their cases. The decision, subject to an appeal, will likely cause media outlets to stop and think before running similar matters to trial.

While we may not see a complete winding back of sensational articles based on loose, non-existent facts, Ms Wilson's win may cause publishers to engage more appropriately and proactively in resolving defamation disputes with celebrities.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: October 16, 2019.

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