A Manly apartment building tenant has won her appeal against paying $120,000 in defamation damages to a fellow resident after a feud over letterboxes.
A Manly apartment building tenant has won her appeal against paying $120,000 in defamation damages to a fellow resident who claimed her email implied he was a “small-minded busybody”.
Gary Raynor, chair of the Watermark building’s strata committee, sued Patricia Murray over a May 2017 email to him, other residents and her real estate agent in which she asked him to stop emailing her about locking her mailbox.
His NSW District Court case claimed he was defamed, contending the email implied he was a “small-minded busybody who wastes the time of fellow residents on petty items concerning the running of the Watermark building”.
He said other meanings included that he unreasonably harassed Ms Murray and “acted menacingly” by consistently threatening her by email.
Judge Judith Gibson awarded Mr Raynor $120,000 in damages in May after finding the meanings were conveyed and that Ms Murray had not established a defence to any of them.
But the NSW Court of Appeal on Wednesday allowed her appeal and set aside the judge’s orders.
It also ordered Mr Murray to pay her legal costs.
THE LETTERBOX SAGA
The bitter dispute occurred between the two neighbours when they were living in the building in Sydney’s northern beaches.
Mr Raynor’s defamation case centred on an email Ms Murray sent on May 25, 2017, almost a year after Ms Murray and her partner had moved in.
As soon as Ms Murray started leasing the apartment in July 2016, Mr Raynor began to realise she rarely, if ever, locked her mailbox.
In August of that year, Mr Raynor emailed her letting her know he’d noticed the mailbox was unlocked.
Eight months later, Mr Raynor again emailed her about locking her mailbox after police reported people were stealing mail in Manly.
Ten days later, the Watermark’s mailboxes were broken into.
Mr Raynor, the chair of the Watermark’s strata committee, then sent another email to the building and attached an article from The Manly Daily explaining a link between petty mail fraud and international crime syndicates.
According to court documents, Ms Murray replied to the email on April 27 in “derisive terms”, asking Mr Raynor, “Wow! What’s your take on this?”
Thieves broke into the building’s mailboxes again on May 2, 2017. According to other residents living in the Watermark at the time, Ms Murray’s mailbox was locked at the time of the second break-in.
But the next day, Mr Raynor found her leaving her mailbox open again.
He emailed her on May 5, but she did not reply.
On May 24, 2017, Mr Raynor emailed again — and CCed in the real estate agency handling Ms Murray’s tenancy in the Watermark.
In that email, he said he believed Ms Murray’s unlocked mailbox could’ve contributed to the two break-ins and told her she could be forced to pay if the locks on the mailboxes needed to be changed.
Ms Murray sent the email Mr Raynor sued over the next day, complaining of being harassed by “many emails” from Mr Raynor.
The judgment shows she lashed the Mission Impossible situation suggested by Mr Raynor, that her unlocked mailbox could’ve contributed to the two break-ins and complained he had “never asked why we keep the letterbox open”.
“Gary, we are happy friendly people here in unit 9. My partner has 35 years of police and forensic expertise, but rather than a simple knock on my door for a chat in person, or speak to me face-to-face when we have exchanged pleasantries in the foyer, or while I’m putting the buildings bins out on the street, you have consistently chosen the public email option; copy in all residents and/or my real agent, sundry alleging that responsibility for the threat and safety to our home at Watermark is our doing and threatening to hold us financially responsible,” Ms Murray replied.
Signing off her email with “Please Stop!”, Ms Murray labelled the constant emails as “offensive and harassing”.
“To avoid further harassment, I’ve not replied to your provoking mailbox emails. However your consistent attempt to shame me publicly is cowardly,” she wrote.
“It is also offensive, harassing and menacing through the use of technology to threaten me. Please stop!”
In previous emails, Ms Murray argued Mr Raynor was “a small minded busybody who wastes the time of fellow residents on petty items concerning the running of the Watermark building”.
Ms Murray also argued Mr Raynor “was a malicious person who sent threatening emails to the defendant and copied in other residents of the Watermark building for the express purpose of publicly humiliating”.
The NSW District Court found Ms Murray’s barrister had tried to pour cold water on the “busybody” comment, instead suggesting his intense interest in the mailboxes was “misguided”.
Despite the barrister’s argument, that court found Ms Murray had failed to establish a defence of justification or any of the other defences she raised.
Judge Judith Gibson said “it would be fair to say that every sentence of the defendant’s email in reply struck a blow at the plaintiff, and was intended to ridicule and humiliate him in every way”.
Speaking to Nine News after the initial decision in May, Ms Murray’s lawyer Hugo Aston said she was “very disappointed” with the decision.
“She certainly learned a big lesson from all this. It shows that from something seemingly trivial, big consequences can flow,” Mr Aston said.
Barrie Goldsmith, Mr Raynor’s lawyer, said at the time his client was “badly hurt” by the email.
“He wanted his reputation vindicated. He felt very, very badly hurt and defamed by what Ms Murray had written,” Mr Goldsmith said.
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