Magazine publisher Bauer Media has been ordered to pay Hollywood actress Rebel Wilson more than $4.5 million in damages for defaming her in a series of stories in 2015.
It is the largest defamation damages payout ever ordered by an Australian court.
“Today’s verdict is a significant record — it’s about four times the highest previous verdict in a defamation case in Australia,” Wilson’s lawyer Richard Leder said outside the Supreme Court in Melbourne.
“I think she’s going to be absolutely stoked and she’ll probably say she crushed it.”
Wilson, who is in London, later tweeted that she was going through the full judgement with her lawyers.
Wilson was seeking $7 million after she successfully sued the Woman’s Day publisher over eight articles, which she described in court earlier this year as a “malicious, deliberate take-down” of her.
The court today heard Wilson had offered to settle before trial for $200,000.
But in awarding the damages, Justice John Dixon described the extent of the defamation as “unprecedented in this country” because of the articles’ global reach.
“At trial and in the full media glare, Bauer Media tried to characterise its articles as true, or as trivial, or as not likely to be taken seriously,” he said.
“Substantial vindication can only be achieved by an award of damages that underscores that Ms Wilson’s reputation as an actress of integrity was wrongly damaged in a manner that affected her marketability in a huge worldwide marketplace.”
The actress had sought $5.89 million in special damages and $1.2 million in general damages.
“We’ve tried to contact her but haven’t heard back yet, but I’m sure she’ll be absolutely thrilled when she hears today’s verdict,” Mr Leder said.
“The decision by Justice Dixon clearly provides her with enormous vindication, which comes on top of the tremendous vindication that the jury verdict delivered to her. She’s going to be absolutely thrilled.”
The damages awarded included $650,000 in general damages and $3,917,472 in special damages for opportunities lost. Bauer will also have to pay the court costs.
Mr Leder said Wilson would also be seeking the full costs she incurred in running the case.
‘A message to the tabloid media’
Justice Dixon strongly criticised Bauer Media for failing to properly investigate the claims about Wilson, and for publishing them despite knowing they were false.
“The information was based on a source who required payment and anonymity and whom the editor considered had an axe to grind,” he said.
“They repeated the offending allegations when they knew or foresaw that their defamatory slurs would be repeated in the entertainment and celebrity media.”
He said the continued publication of articles on Ms Wilson’s past was motivated by the pursuit of profit.
“Their conduct was orchestrated, it was a campaign designed to cast a slur on Ms Wilson, that would attract interest,” he said.
“Bauer Media published to advance it own corporate interests, to improve its circulation, or increase views, hits, in the expectation of high profits.
“It kept the story alive for days. Bauer Media appreciated the risk of reputational damage to the plaintiff and did not care whether Ms Wilson suffered it as it pursued its own corporate objective.”
Bauer Media said in a statement that it was “considering the judgement”.
“Bauer Media has a long history of delivering great stories to our readers and we have a reputation for developing some of the best editorial teams in the country,” general counsel Adrian Goss said on behalf of the company.
“This is what we are focused on.”
Mr Leder said Justice Dixon’s words and the significant payment would serve as a “message to the tabloid media” not to operate in the same manner.
In June, Wilson promised to donate any payout to charities or local causes.
“Any dollars I receive will go to charity, scholarships or invested into the Aussie film industry to provide jobs,” Wilson tweeted at the time.
“I take being a role model very seriously.”
Damages payments for non-economic losses in Victorian defamation cases, such as for emotional suffering, are capped at $389,500. But “special damages”, including loss of earnings, are uncapped.
The actress returned to Melbourne in May to give evidence over six days during the three-week trial.
At the time, she told the court she decided to sue to “stand up” for herself and her family, after the articles claimed she had lied publicly about her age, real name and upbringing.
“Even though it’s going to be harrowing to come into the court … I felt like I have to … I’m the one to do it,” she said.
“I have enough money, I have the courage to come and do it and this magazine company gets away with so much and not everyone has the strength to stand up for themselves.”
‘Shocked and blindsided’
In evidence which ranged from emotional to comedic, the 37-year-old actress told stories about her upbringing as a Sydney “bogan”, including as a junior dog handler and the family’s belief that they were related to Walt Disney.
“It’s just something I’ve always known, like knowing who your parents are,” she told the court under cross examination.
“My Nana had a family tree done.
“I believe the purpose of why she did it was to see whether us, her grandchildren, were entitled to any royalties.”
During the trial, she became upset as she spoke about the impact the articles had on her personal and professional career.
She told the court the articles caused her to be fired from the movies Trolls and Kung Fu Panda 3 because she was “too divisive”.
“I was just absolutely shocked and blindsided … I didn’t even know what to say, I was just extremely embarrassed,” she said.
“The director and producers had said they’d loved my improvisation so much that it reminded them of when Robin Williams recorded.
“I believe Mr Katzenberg was referring to the negative press — that’s the only thing I can think of.”
Another of Wilson’s lawyers, Matthew Collins QC, told the trial that Wilson could have made up to $18 million from a number of film roles if the articles had not damaged her career, and the amount sought was “conservative”.