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Diet Doctors and the Value of Reputation

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The law of defamation is a very technical, complex area of law.  Even more complex is the motivation behind many defamation claims. Since the value of a reputation is hard to quantify, defamation claims can often be motivated more by injured feelings than by money.  Claims where it ends up being more about personalities than about the money raise some complex issues regarding the role of civil courts, which are really designed to allocate money, rather than to fix hurt feelings.  An example of this is a recently decided case of a defamation battle between two diet doctors.

The basic facts of the case, Bernstein v. Poon, 2015 ONSC 155, are fairly straightforward.  Dr. Bernstein is a well known diet doctor.  Dr. Poon is also a diet doctor, who has published a book, and did an interview, that criticized the Bernstein diet.  Dr. Bernstein took issue with the criticisms, alleging that they were defamatory.  The case involved a number of statements made by Dr. Poon - that the Bernstein diet was a "very low calorie diet" (as opposed to a "low calorie diet"), that its followers were "starving" themselves, that the diet burned muscle in addition to fat, that the vitamin injections on the Bernstein diet do not increase metabolism - were false and defamatory.  It does not appear that the comments were particularly widespread, although they were enough to make Dr. Bernstein take notice.

After over six years of litigation, and a seven and a half year trial, Justice Mew found that while many of the impugned statements were "fair comment" (and therefore not defamatory), a few of the comments were defamatory.  I have no intention of wading into the debate (I'm not a diet doctor, nor do I pretend to be), but the bottom line is that Justice Mew awarded Dr. Bernstein a total of $10,000 in damages.

At the conclusion of Justice Mew's lengthy reasons, he comments on the damages award, and perhaps suggests that it may have been a waste of court resources:

 After all that, it may seem anticlimactic that the end result is an award of $10,000. However the possibility of such an outcome is one that would have been known and understood by the parties and their respective experienced and very capable counsel. It is for others to decide whether the substantial public resources that have been made available to enable this dispute to be adjudicated are proportionate to the rights and interests that were at stake.

So in the end, was it worth the substantial legal fees, the amount of time spent in discoveries and trial, and the public airing of the dispute?  If either party was expecting to be completely vindicated at trial, they will not be happy - only a few of the comments were found to be defamatory (the rest being "fair comment") and the $10,000 damages award is likely not going to change either party's life (at least compared to the money they likely spent on legal fees throughout the process).  Perhaps Dr. Bernstein is happy to show other potential critics that he will not tolerate potentially defamatory criticism?  Perhaps Dr. Poon is happy that his critique of Dr. Bernstein is now public record (and Dr. Bernstein victim of the Streisand effect), at a cost of $10,000 plus legal fees?  

Although I have no way of knowing the real answer, I suspect that while each party may be content with a partial victory, neither party is really that happy with the result.  As many judges will readily tell you, the court (particularly in commercial litigation) is there to decide who owes whom money, and that parties who go to court only to air their grievances will often leave unhappy.

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