Neglecting to use a crucial apostrophe in a Facebook post about his former workplace may cost Australian real estate agent Anthony Zadravic hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fees, according to a report from The Guardian.

Zadravic, who is currently an agent on the Central Coast in New South Wales with brokerage Ray White Umina Beach, may have hastily published the Facebook post late in the evening on October 22, 2020, which suggested that his former workplace — and more specifically, a man named Stuart Gan — failed to pay retirement funds to all its workers.

Within 12 hours Zadravic had deleted the post, but his failure to use an apostrophe in the word “employees” left an impression on Gan, who learned of the post and filed a defamation claim again Zadravic.

Anthony Zadravic | Credit: Ray White

The Facebook post in question — which did not, however, neglect the use of exclamation points — read, “Oh Stuart Gann!! Selling multi million $ homes in Pearl Beach but can’t pay his employees superannuation. Shame on you Stuart!!! 2 yrs and still waiting!!!”

Zadravic’s defense implied that he had intended to include an apostrophe, so that the word read “employee’s,” and therefore, only referred to his own personal experience with an unpaid “superannuation,” or a regular payment made into a fund toward a pension. But, the New South Wales district court’s judge said that Zadravic’s failure to include the apostrophe suggested that Gan’s company followed a “systematic pattern of conduct” of not paying all employees in full, allowing for grounds for defamation.

“The difficulty for the plaintiff is the use of the word ’employees’ in the plural,” district court Judge Judith Gibson said in a court statement. “To fail to pay one employee’s superannuation entitlement might be seen as unfortunate; to fail to pay some or all of them looks deliberate.”

The trial could end up costing Zadravic between $160,000 to $250,000, according to Judge Gibson’s assessment of court fees and the outcomes of similar past cases of defamation.

Australia is known for its extremely stringent defamation laws and the country’s courts are “awash with claims” every year, according to special counsel Barrie Goldsmith at Rostron Carlyle Rojas Lawyers, who spoke with the New York Times.

U.S.-based individuals becoming nervous reading this, however, should be put at ease — in the U.S., such a case would not be viable due to freedom of speech protections by the First Amendment.

In Australia, however, the country’s rigid defamation laws have spurred concerns of censorship from journalists and news organizations. In September, a High Court ruling deemed that news organizations could be held liable for defamation for replies posted to their stories on Facebook, even if the content within the story itself was not defamatory. In response to the ruling, CNN has stopped posting its articles on Australia’s Facebook pages.

Other similar cases seen in the country recently include a 2020 case of a Brisbane veterinarian and his company, which received $25,000 for Facebook posts and posts on other websites made by a former client, claiming the vet had overcharged her, as well as a 2019 case where an elderly care nurse was awarded $15,000 after claims made on Facebook that the nurse was fired because of alcohol use.

Defamation lawyer Rebekah Giles told The Guardian that such posts have the potential to cause real damage because of their rapidly spreading nature.

“A social media post can reach a wider audience than the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald — in a matter of hours,” Giles said. “Serious harm can be inflicted with ease.”

Some cases are resolved with the removal of defamatory posts from any websites, an apology and coverage of legal costs, while others can cost a defendant hundreds of thousands of dollars, Giles added.

Email Lillian Dickerson

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