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Scientology libel loss confirmed // Judge rejects request to reduce $1.6-million award to Crown lawyer

Title: Scientology libel loss confirmed // Judge rejects request to reduce $1.6-million award to Crown lawyer
Date: Thursday, 12 March 1992
Publisher: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Author: Thomas Claridge
Main source:

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Canada's costliest libel loss became even costlier yesterday when an Ontario Court judge not only confirmed a $1.6-million jury award but tacked on legal fees and about $560,000 in interest.

In a written decision, Mr. Justice Douglas Carruthers rejected arguments by lawyers for the Toronto-based Church of Scientology and lawyer Morris Manning that he should reduce the jury award to S. Casey Hill on the grounds that it was unreasonably high.

Judge Carruthers of the Ontario Court's General Division said he did not consider the fact that the lawyers now wanted him to fix the damages as amounting to a defence consent "to take the case from the jury and proceed on my own."

Noting that both defendants had initially sought a jury trial and resisted motions by Mr. Hill's lawyers to discharge the jury, the judge said that with the verdict "now in hand, there has been a complete change in the parties' respective views of the jury's participation in the trial."

The judge also observed that the jury award was made despite the fact he had not advised the jurors that they could award damages on a "substantial" basis.

He also dismissed a motion by the Scientology organization to dissolve an injunction made after the trial that prohibited any repetition of the libel.

Observing that the jury had decided that an $800,000 award of punitive damages was needed to punish the organization for defaming Mr. Hill, a senior Crown lawyer, Judge Carruthers said that within 24 hours of the verdict the organization had "republished the libel" in a news release announcing plans for an appeal.

Explaining his decision to issue the injunction, the judge said it was "reasonable to conclude that no amount awarded on account of punitive damages would have prevented or will prevent the Church of Scientology from publishing defamatory statements about the plaintiff."

The libel action, underwritten by the Ontario government, was launched in 1984 after Mr. Hill and another government lawyer were cleared of criminal contempt charges laid by the Church of Scientology. The charges dealt with a court order that permitted Ontario's Registrar-General to peruse Scientology documents that a judge had ordered sealed after they were seized in a 1983 police raid on the organization's Toronto headquarters.

The lawsuit initially named The Globe and Mail and Canada's two television networks as co-defendants, on grounds they had reported on a news conference at which Mr. Manning, representing the Church of Scientology, disclosed the contempt proceedings. The media defendants reached an 11th-hour settlement, terms of which included an apology read in court and payment of $50,000 toward Mr. Hill's legal costs.

In his decision, Judge Carruthers said he learned after the trial that the Scientology organization had also been offered an out-of-court settlement involving payment of $50,000 in damages and $85,000 toward the plaintiff's legal bills.

"As matters now stand, it would not be rational to think otherwise than that the defendants would have been well advised to have accepted the offer to settle."

Under terms of a 1988 agreement, the government committed itself to reimburse Mr. Hill for costs incurred in pressing the libel action, and the lawyer gave an undertaking to reimburse the government in the event of either an out-of-court settlement or an award in his favour.

The highest previous award in a Canadian libel action came in 1984, when the CTV Television Network was ordered to pay $933,000 in damages to Walker Bros. Quarries Ltd. in connection with an episode on the program W5 dealing with a company quarry near Thorold, Ont., and toxic wastes. That trial was also presided over by Judge Carruthers.

In 1986, the Ontario Court of Appeal quashed the award as unreasonable but refused to substitute its own award, instead ordering a new trial, which has not yet taken place.

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