Pulling Teeth And Strong Words: The Law Of Defamation In Alberta

Published date23 June 2021
Subject MatterLitigation, Mediation & Arbitration, Disclosure & Electronic Discovery & Privilege, Libel & Defamation
Law FirmMcCarthy Tétrault LLP
AuthorCanadian Appeals Monitor, Mark Risebrough and Samuel Platt (Summer Student)

Where do the boundaries of defamation lie in Alberta? The Alberta Court of Appeal ("ABCA") recently discussed the tort of defamation and the defenses thereto in Huff v Zuk, 2021 ABCA 60, and found that Dr. Zuk had indeed defamed Dr. Huff and could not avail himself of any of the applicable defenses.

Background

Prior to 2007, Dr. Zuk and the Alberta Dental Association and College ("ADAC") had been locked in a dispute regarding the former's non-compliance with the latter's advertising standards. As a result, Dr. Zuk campaigned against the ADAC, with such campaign including ad hominem attacks against, among others, Dr. Huff, the Chair of ADAC's Advertising Committee. The defamatory statements fell into two groups - the "Jasper Incident" and the "Abuse of Position".1

The alleged "Jasper Incident" occurred at a meeting of the ADAC Council in Jasper. Dr. Zuk and Dr. Huff were members of the Council and attended the meeting. At the meeting, Dr. Zuk asked to be a member of the Advertising Committee. Dr. Huff refused, citing Dr. Zuk's unresolved advertising issues. At the social event, Dr. Zuk purportedly "witnessed an inebriated Dr. Huff stuff party hats into the fly of Dr. Doty, then touch Dr. Doty's crotch".2 Dr. Zuk reported the Jasper Incident to the ADAC President, who reached out to Dr. Doty, who denied the Jasper Incident. Dr. Zuk published statements about the Jasper Incident in both a digital newsletter distributed to Alberta dentists and his e-book, stating, among other things, that he witnessed Dr. Huff engage in the "inappropriate fondling of another board member".3

The "Abuse of Position" allegations were Dr. Zuk's published statements that the Advertising Committee was biased and provided special treatment for senior members of the ADAC, did not apply the advertising standards uniformly, and suppressed criticism of its advertising standards.4 Dr. Huff argued the statements suggested he was carrying out his duties as Chair of the Advertising Committee in bad faith.

Based on the foregoing, Dr. Huff sought damages against Dr. Zuk for defamation.

The ABCA's Decision

Defamation

A plaintiff in a defamation action is required to prove three things to obtain judgment and an award of damages: (i) that the impugned words were defamatory (e.g., they would tend to lower the plaintiff's reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person); (ii) that the words in fact referred to the plaintiff; and (iii) that the words were published (e.g., they were communicated to...

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