High Court awards $535k plus costs for ‘full scale assault’ on Karam’s reputation

David Bain supporter Joe Karam has won $535,000 in damages plus indemnity costs at the High Court for a defamation suit he brought against two men in 2010.

Mr Karam, a former All Black, claimed 94 defamatory statements were made about him across four websites after Mr Bain’s acquittal. Many of the remarks referred to legal aid funding and questioned Mr Karam’s motives for supporting Mr Bain.

Mr Bain was acquitted in 2009 of killing five of his family members. Mr Karam was a staunch financial and legal supporter during his retrial.

Defendants in the defamation suit were Kent Parker, a web developer, and Victor Purkiss, a retail shop assistant, who went unrepresented during the October trial at the Auckland High Court.

A just released decision by Justice Patricia Courtney found 50 of the 94 statements had no defence, saying  the campaign was “a full scale assault on Mr Karam’s reputation.”

She also says she accepts witness evidence that Mr Karam “became preoccupied, unsociable, and visibly distressed.

“He described the period during which these statements were posted as the worst four years of his life and I believe him,” Justice Courtney says in her decision.

Mr Karam was seeking $1.25 million in damages from Mr Parker, who represented himself, and $500,000 from Mr Purkiss, who never showed up for court.

In awarding damages, Justice Courtney says she took into account Mr Karam’s reputation and evidence of character given at the trial, including that of Peter Williams, QC.

“First, Mr Karam enjoyed a significant and positive reputation before becoming involved in the Bain case. He already had a high public profile as a result of his successful sporting career. He had subsequently enjoyed success in business. Character evidence attests to the fact that he was highly regarded for his integrity, generosity and altruism,” Justice Courtney says in her decision.

Justice Courtney ordered Mr Purkiss to pay $184,500 and Mr Parker to pay $350,500, including $10,000 for punitive damages.

Messrs Parker and Purkiss made the statements on Facebook and the Counterspin website, which was taken down during the trial but has since gone live again.

Mr Parker is additionally responsible for publishing the remarks as the sites’ administrator. Mr Purkiss is additionally charged with alleged defamatory statements on Trade Me and YouTube.

On his Counterspin website, Mr Parker says he will appeal.

“The costs is [sic] a further judgment so both of those will go up considerably. I disagree on most of the rulings on fact and law and will be appealing. It became evident to me early on the proceedings last year that I was not getting my message across. This time I avow I will not fail. I know what the result should be and I will do my utmost to get it there,” Mr Parker says on the Counterspin website.

Justice Courtney ordered indemnity costs, which could nearly double the $535,000 judgment.

During the October trial, Mr Parker apologised to Mr Karam and his family, and took down the Counterspin site.

“Under cross-examination, Mr Parker did agree that his behaviour had been disgraceful and offered an apology. However, the lateness of the apology and Mr Parker’s conduct of his defence significantly undermined the value of it,” Justice Courtney says in her decision.

After the trial Mr Karam’s lawyer Michael Reed,QC, advised Justice Courtney the Counterspin site had gone live again.

“Mr Parker did not respond to that memorandum and I proceed on the basis that the site is still live,” Justice Courtney says in her decision.

She ordered the defendants not to make any defamatory remarks about Mr Karam in any forum and also ordered they “take all reasonable steps to remove defamatory material from the Facebook page and Counterspin site within one month of the date of this judgment [April 9].”

Before the trial, both defendants pleaded the affirmative defences of honest opinion, qualified privilege and truth. Although Mr Purkiss did not appear at court, Mr Parker represented himself and later abandoned the truth defence the same day he apologised to Mr Karam.

Wellington media lawyer Steven Price helped Mr Parker prepare his pleadings before the trial but was not hired to develop evidence or assist during the hearings.

Originally, Mr Parker claimed to have 28 witnesses whose evidence would span over five weeks. He ended up with two witnesses, including himself.

Justice Courtney found the defendants made the problem worse by attempting to raise the profile of the websites. First, they gave interviews to the Sunday Star-Times drawing attention to the sites with defamatory statements.

“By his own admission, Mr Parker took steps to ensure that Counterspin’s profile was raised even higher by ensuring that it appeared earlier in Google searches than other sites dealing with the Bain case,” Justice Courtney says in her decision.

Mr Karam brought proceedings against Fairfax NZ in 2010 for claims of defamation relating to articles published in 2009. They settled a confidential agreement late last year and on December 10, Stuff.co.nz published a formal retraction of the defamatory statements and an apology to Mr Karam.  

In her just released decision, Justice Courtney said she accepts Mr Reed’s description of the defamation by Messrs Parkr and Purkiss as “a full scale assault on Mr Karam’s reputation.”

“The defendants and others accused Mr Karam of, among other things, dishonesty in his motivations, lack of integrity in his dealings with expert witnesses, fraud in relation to the LSA, lack of integrity in his motivation and dealings with David Bain. Few aspects of Mr Karam’s reputation were left untouched,” she says in her decision.