Appeal against hefty damages award to actor Geoffrey Rush for defamation fails

27 July 2020

The Full Federal Court has dismissed an appeal by Nationwide News against a finding of liability for publication of defamatory articles about prominent Australian actor Geoffrey Rush.

In Issue

  • A finding that the publications conveyed a particular pleaded imputation
  • The rejection of the defence of justification
  • The assessment of damages

The background

Around 2 years after a Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear, Nationwide News published three articles relating to alleged conduct of lead actor Geoffrey Rush during the course of the production.

In early 2019 a single judge of the Federal Court found that each of the 3 publications were defamatory of Mr Rush, and awarded him damages of approximately $2.8 M.

Nationwide News appealed against that judgment on multiple grounds, including findings that the articles conveyed a particular defamatory imputation, the rejection of the defence of justification, and on aspects of the damages award.

The decision at trial

At trial Justice Wigney found that Nationwide News’ publications in the Daily Telegraph were defamatory and harmful, and accordingly awarded damages to Mr Rush for past and future economic loss, as well as non-economic loss (including personal distress), totalling $2,872,753.10.

The Decision on appeal

All grounds of appeal failed and the appeal was dismissed. In reaching its decision the Full Court, inter alia:

  1. Agreed with the trial judge that the ordinary reasonable reader was likely to consider a person who engaged in the alleged conduct conveyed by the publications to be a “pervert”, particularly in so far as it concerned behaving as a sexual predator, and a man’s use of authority or stature in the workplace to obtain sexual gratification by inappropriately touching a non-consenting co-worker;
  2. Did not disturb the trial judge’s finding that a defence of justification was not made out;
  3. Rejected an argument that the award of $850,000.00 for non-economic loss was excessive in circumstances where the harm caused to Mr Rush’s reputation by a sensationalised tabloid campaign warranted a high award. The award also took into account the subjective response of Mr Rush which was one of devastation, distress and grief; and
  4. Held that the challenge to the award for economic loss also failed.

Implications for you

This decision is a reminder that newspapers ought carefully consider the factual basis for any article before publication, particularly when the content of that article is potentially defamatory.

Nationwide News Pty Limited v Rush [2020] FCAFC 115

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