Insurance exec’s $2.6M libel award nixed

“Inflamed” jury damages “grossly excessive”

An “inflamed” jury awarded “grossly excessive” libel damages to the former director of the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation (MPIC), the Manitoba Court of Appeal has ruled.

In an action separate from his ongoing wrongful dismissal lawsuit, Carl Laufer had won $2.6 million, the highest libel award in Canadian history, on a claim that John Bucklaschuk, a government minister, unfairly blamed him for an insurance boondoggle.

MPIC had been some $38 million in the red.

Bucklaschuk’s supposed defamatory statements, made in scrums with reporters and news conferences, were to the effect that nobody had given the responsible board a total or timely picture of the losses and that, while Laufer’s dismissal was “not related” to the problem, “certainly Mr. Laufer had not made the board nor myself aware of the seriousness of the situation.”

In response to ongoing questioning, Bucklaschuk later remarked that “there was a change in the senior management at MPIC and a review of our reinsurance operation was completed.”

The appeal court has found that the jury too readily accepted the invitation of Laufer’s lawyer, in his closing statement, “to teach all politicians and government a lesson,” the appeal court has held, “even though the only defendant was one ex-cabinet minister.”

This difficulty was compounded when the trial judge found various statements defamatory but failed to identify for the jury which specific defamatory meanings went with which statements.

As well, the appeal court has ruled that the trial judge failed to explain adequately to the jury that, as a government minister, Bucklaschuk enjoyed qualified privilege to make certain critical statements, and that the privilege could be defeated only by malice in its libel-law sense.

The judge should have explained, for example, that malice applied only if it had been Bucklaschuk’s dominant motive in making the statements.

The appeal court has sent the matter back to the Court of Queen’s Bench for a new trial.

For more information:

Laufer v. Buck-laschuk, Manitoba Court of Appeal docket AI98-30-03893, Dec. 20/99.

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