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The Toronto Star is appealing a northern Ontario jury’s $1.475 million libel award –one of the highest in Canadian history – over an article describing a wealthy local businessman’s plans to expand his personal lakeside golf course. The Star argues the June 2001 article should be protected by the defence of “qualified privilege,” which gives the media wide latitude to publish controversial opinions on matters of substantial public interest. By Peter Small.

The Toronto Star is appealing a northern Ontario jury’s near-$1.5 million libel award over an article describing a wealthy local businessman’s plans to expand his personal lakeside golf course.

The Star argues in a notice of appeal that Superior Court Justice Paul Rivard made numerous errors both in law and in his summation of the facts for the jury.

The judge erred in finding that the June 23, 2001, story could carry the defamatory meanings alleged by Peter Grant and his company, Grant Forest Products Inc., the Star says.

The plaintiffs claimed that the article, headlined: “Cottagers teed off over golf course; Long-time Harris backer awaits Tory nod on plan,” implied that Grant’s proposal was a “done deal” because of his ties to the provincial government headed by then-premier Mike Harris.

The Star countered that the article, by senior writer Bill Schiller, simply reported on strong concerns felt by many lakeside cottagers about the powerful millionaire’s proposed golf course expansion on Twin Lakes, 160 kilometres north of North Bay.

Grant’s lawyer, Peter Downard, declined comment, except to say: “We will fully respond to the appeal at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.”

In its notice of appeal, the Star argues that Rivard erred in not allowing the defence of “qualified privilege,” in which media are given wide latitude to publish controversial opinions on matters of substantial public interest.

Further, the judge was wrong in failing to find that there was no probability that the Star acted with malice, according to the appeal.

Rivard also made numerous other mistakes in his charge to the jury, both in his instructions on the law and in his summary of the evidence, the newspaper says.

The plaintiffs contended that one quote, by cottager Lorrie Clark, was particularly libellous: “Everyone thinks it’s a done deal because of Grant’s influence … but most of all his Mike Harris ties.”

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The judge should have instructed the jury that these words could only be regarded as a statement of opinion, not fact, the Star says.

The judge also failed to adequately instruct jurors on the legal principles to apply in considering damages, including the exceptional nature of aggravated and punitive damages, according to the appeal notice.

The jury of three men and three women awarded Grant $25,000 in aggravated damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

The jury also awarded $450,000 in general damages.

The total, $1.475 million, was one of the highest libel awards in Canadian history.

“The general damages are out of all proportion to any reasonable award and which, if permitted to stand, will have a very serious and detrimental impact on investigative journalism on matters of public interest and on freedom of expression generally,” the Star argues.

The judge also failed to adequately question potential jurors about their possible connection to Grant and his company.

It is “the largest private sector employer in the area,” the newspaper’s appeal says.

Published February 28, 2007. Reprinted by permission.