E-mail gossip leads to $7,800 payout

Executive on the hook for damages after e-mail to former employee's new employer accusing him of unethical business practices

An Ontario executive has discovered being an e-mail gossip can be costly, especially if the content of the e-mail isn’t true.

Rick Sullivan, vice-president of broadcasting manufacturing for Radian Communications in Mississauga, Ont., sent an e-mail to the director of operations for Elmira, Ont.-based WesTower Communications on Sept. 26, 2005. The subject of the e-mail was Ronald Harrington, who had just started as a senior vice-president at WesTower. Harrington previously worked for an affiliate of Radian, so Sullivan was familiar with him.

In the e-mail, Sullivan said Harrington’s former boss at Radian’s affiliate had told him Harrington was fired for “cooking the books” and hid $3 million in losses. Sullivan insinuated Harrington had a good grasp of “artistic business practices” as a result.

The director of WesTower forwarded the e-mail to Harrington and Harrington’s former boss and the latter replied on Oct. 4, 2005, denying he had said anything to Sullivan, calling the e-mail “slanderous,” “completely false” and “malicious gossip.” He demanded a retraction and threatened to seek legal advice.

Sullivan immediately e-mailed an apology to both Harrington and his former boss. He retracted his suggestion of unethical business practices and apologized for gossiping about it.

Harrington wasn’t satisfied and, through his lawyer, demanded a letter of apology and $15,000 for “damage caused to Mr. Harrington’s reputation in the Tower community, for Mr. Harrington’s humiliation and anxiety, as well as the mental distress, emotional suffering and embarrassment of Mr. Harrington caused by Mr. Sullivan’s libelous statements and defamatory publication.” He also wanted $5,000 for legal costs from Sullivan and Radian.

Sullivan agreed to deliver a letter of apology, refrain from repeating his allegations from the e-mail and answer any inquiries about the allegations with details from his apology. However, he only agreed to pay $500 for Harrington’s legal costs.

Harrington didn’t like Sullivan’s settlement offer and filed a statement of claim in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on July 21, 2006. In the statement, he demanded $50,000 in damages and almost $30,000 in costs.

After months of back-and-forth negotiating, a settlement was reached shortly before the trial. It was agreed Sullivan and Radian would pay Harrington $5,000 with the court deciding the costs.

The court found Harrington’s demand for almost $30,000 in costs in his statement of claim was “excessive in the extreme.” Though Harrington claimed he suffered from stress and medical issues because of the e-mail, he didn’t provide any corroboration. It also couldn’t see any evidence his reputation or his position at WesTower was damaged.

The court felt the case was a straightforward one and, considering the settlement was for $5,000, a much lower costs award was appropriate. It ordered Sullivan to pay $2,800 in costs, with Radian absolved of any liability. Though Sullivan was employed with Radian, the court found it had no role in the defamatory e-mail he sent.

Sullivan’s lawyer, Michael Simaan, said caution is necessary when writing e-mails containing comments about people.

“We would maybe think twice before we said certain things (in a letter),” Simaan told the Toronto Star. “With e-mail it just seems to come out as easily as words come out of our mouth, which is what makes it dangerous.”

For more information see:

Harrington v. Sullivan, 2008 CarswellOnt 4966 (Ont. S.C.J.).

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