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Supreme Court upholds socialite's internet comments damages suit

Brigitte Susanne Hunt (photo from 2020).
Brigitte Susanne Hunt (photo from 2020). Source: Kroonika/pressimaterjalid

The Supreme Court has upheld a suit brought by socialite Brigitte Susanne Hunt and overturned decisions made by two lower-tier courts, in respect of an internet commenter who insulted her.

The Supreme Court heard the appeal in cassation, while its ruling means the case has to be sent back to the county court, for review.

Hunt filed suit with the first-tier Harju County Court on April 7, 2021 against the author of the comment, Taivo Liivik.

Hunt sought damages at the court's discretion, and at the rate stipulated by the law relating to late payment.

According to the statement of claim, the defendant, Liivik, violated the plaintiff's, Hunt's, honor and good name by publishing a comment: "Rahakott on kahe jala vahel."

This would translate as "the wallet is between the two legs," and was placed in the comments section of an article entitled "GALERII | Brigitte Susanne Hunt tähistas 24. sünnipäeva suurejoonelise peoga" (English: "Gallery:  Brigitte Susanne Hunt celebrates her 24th birthday with a spectacular party"), which was published on the website of evening paper Õhtuleht.

The plaintiff claimed the expression "the wallet is between the two legs" would mean, to the average, reasonable reader, as applied in the context of the photo of her, that she earns money via prostitution; selling her body and sexual services. 

Harju County Court dismissed the suit, however, with its decision made November 25, 2021, meaning the plaintiff was required to bear the costs of the proceedings.

The county court found the phrase "the wallet is between the two legs" to be both an interconnected value assessment and a statement of fact. The county court did not agree with the plaintiff's claim that, based on what the defendant published, the plaintiff was engaged in prostitution. 

The county court also found that Hunt is a public figure, one whose profile makes use of her physical assets in public display and who generates income as a result.

"The plaintiff had accepted that the possibility that she had acted in a provocative way. By behaving in this way, the plaintiff had to comprehend that her actions could lead to negative evaluations. In a situation where the plaintiff himself exposes themselves publicly for the purpose of earning income, the threshold of toleration of criticism of her person should be, according to the county court higher [than that of an individual not engaged in such activity]. The plaintiff thus has no cause for complaint that she was referred to as a person who earns income by utilizing their body," the county court found.

Hunt appealed this decision, seeking its annulment and a new decision which would satisfy the lawsuit.

The plaintiff disputed the judgment's line of reasoning in that aspect in which the county court found that the defendant had not explicitly stated as fact that the plaintiff was engaged in prostitution. 

The plaintiff also contested that section in which the county court found that, in a situation where the plaintiff himself publicly exposes themselves for the purpose of earning income, in the court's opinion the threshold for tolerating criticism should be higher than that of any other person.

The second-tier Tallinn Circuit Court dismissed the appeal via a decision of August 30, 2022 and did not change the decision of the county court. The district court allowed the plaintiff to bear the costs of the proceedings.

The circuit court also did not concur with the plaintiff that the phrase "the wallet is between the two legs" could only be interpreted as engaging in prostitution. 

The circuit court also disagreed with the plaintiff's claim that, having established the publication of an inappropriate and therefore illegal evaluation, damages should be awarded.

Following this circuit court ruling, the plaintiff submitted an appeal in cassation ("in cassation" means an act of annulling, canceling, or quashing-ed.) to the Supreme Court, requesting that both lower-tier courts' decisions be overruled and damages be satisfied.

The Supreme Court's civil chamber found that the decisions made by the lower courts must be overruled, due to the incorrect application of the norm of substantive law and the significant violation of the norm of procedural law. 

As a result, the case must be sent to the same county court, ie. Harju County Court, for a new review, while the cassation appeal must be satisfied – in other words the county court is being directed to award damages to Hunt relating to the original comment.

The chamber did not agree with the position of the lower courts that the plaintiff's claim had to be dismissed, among other reasons, because the plaintiff had not proven that she had suffered serious consequences arising from the comment.

The civil chamber stuck to its previous position that in order to award financial compensation for non-pecuniary damage, it is sufficient if it is established that the defendant is responsible for the violation of the plaintiff's personal right, i.e. the existence of non-pecuniary damage does not need to be proved by the plaintiff.

The panel also disagreed with the courts' view that the fact of the court proceedings themselves, along with the court decision, are sufficient to eliminate the negative consequences caused by defamation. 

The panel found that the holding of court proceedings, resulting in the claim being dismissed, cannot nullify or compensate for the non-pecuniary damage caused to the plaintiff. 

On the contrary, Supreme Court said, the fact that the defendant has not voluntarily fulfilled the claim made by the plaintiff and has thereby led to litigation taking place, damages the plaintiff even more in non-pecuniary terms, compared with a case where the defendant had voluntarily fulfilled the claim of the plaintiff, ie. issued damages out-of-court.

The county and circuit courts had also wrongly justified the rejection of this claim by using the fact that the defendant has issued an apology to the plaintiff, and that this was sufficient to compensate the plaintiff for the consequences of publishing a comment that offends her honor and dignity. 

Supreme Court: The reputation of a public figure may not be defamed by publishing false information

The Supreme Court civil chamber noted that the circumstances that allow a person to be considered a public figure depend on the nature of that person's activities, and the nature of their public coverage. 

This means an individual cannot be considered a public figure in an abstract sense, and the specific case must be taken into consideration.

"It is in the public interest /.../, that it not be legitimate to defame a public figure (as well as any other individual) by knowingly publishing false information," the Supreme Court added.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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