A former Dawson City couple has been awarded more than $800,000 in damages after successfully suing two women for defamation in a case originally rooted in a dispute over the ownership of a Dome-Road house.
The figure is believed to be one of the largest, if not the largest, amount awarded in a single defamation suit in the Yukon.
Delivering their verdict in a Whitehorse courtroom the afternoon of Feb. 13, a six-member jury found that Audrey Vigneau and Susan Hermann had defamed and made malicious statements against Michael and Angela Senft.
The decision came after a trial, presided over by Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale, that lasted more than two weeks, and about a day’s worth of deliberations by the jury.
The Senfts filed their lawsuit against Vigneau and Hermann back in November 2017, during which the couple was still pursuing another legal action — one against Dawson retiree Daniele McRae, whom the couple said added their names to the property title of her house in 2010, only to abruptly kick them out in June 2017.
The Senfts sued McRae for access to the house, arguing she had unlawfully taken sole possession of the property. In response, McRae claimed that she had been tricked by the couple and thought they would only get the house after she died.
That lawsuit that was eventually dismissed by consent in March 2018.
However, between the lawsuit against McRae being filed and dismissed, Vigneau and Hermann, both friends of McRae’s, made what the jury would ultimately find as defamatory statements about Senfts.
In particular, Vigneau created a GoFundMe campaign to help cover McRae’s legal fees, the description of which alleged the situation was “blatant senior abuse and fraudulent” and that the Senfts had “verbally abused and threatened” McRae. She also made at least three Facebook posts or comments about the case.
Hermann, meanwhile, placed letters in 832 mailboxes at the Dawson post office that were similarly-worded to the GoFundMe campaign’s description, and also made online posts as well as statements to the CBC.
In his closing submissions to the jury Feb. 12, lawyer Gary Whittle, who, along with Megan Whittle, represented the Senfts, said that Vigneau and Hermann’s words had caused serious damage to the Senfts’ reputations and that they’d suffered greatly as a result.
“To most people, their good reputation cherished by them above all else,” Whittle told the court.
“We are not born with a good reputation. We earn a good reputation …. Yet one false allegation, let alone many, about a person can instantly destroy her or his reputation.”
Vigneau and Hermann’s online posts, letters and comments were based on second-hand information, Gary continued, and neither had bothered to try to speak to the Senfts to get their side before publishing words that suggested the couple was unfair, abusive and untrustworthy. They also made no effort to mitigate the backlash against the Senfts, promptly delete or clarify their posts, or properly apologize.
Angela Senft had broken down in tears when asked to recount the effect the words had on her life, Gary reminded the jury, which included causing her to become so withdrawn and emotionally distressed that she eventually retired from her job as a social worker years earlier than she had planned.
The Senfts both also felt like they could no longer continue living in Dawson, which they had called home for more than 25 years.
Gary asked the jury to award Angela $214,093.91 in damages for lost wages and benefits. He also asked the jury to award the couple $10,541.49 to cover the cost of them moving from Dawson, as well as a “substantial amount” of general, aggravated and punitive damages.
However, lawyers John Cliffe and JJ McIntyre, who represented Vigneau and Hermann, respectively, denied that their clients had made defamatory statements at all, and that any damage caused to the Senfts was “slight at best.”
“I’m submitting to you that you should dismiss all of this case,” Cliffe told the jury, accusing the Senfts of being unreliable witnesses. Any losses suffered, he continued, were “self-inflicted” — Angela was not fired, but chose to quit — and there was no evidence, other than their testimony, that the Senfts suffered any medical distress or ostracization from the community.
Both Cliffe and McIntyre also argued that the women’s words should be covered by fair comment, and that there was no malice in them — they were simply trying to help out and look out for the well-being of their elderly friend, whom they genuinely believed was in trouble.
“All you have is a body of evidence that says both the defendants acted in a well-intentioned way to raised funds for Mrs. McRae,” Cliffe said.
The jury, however, disagreed, finding that both Vigneau and Hermann had defamed both of the Senfts, and had done so maliciously.
It ordered Vigneau to pay Angela $252,207.42 in combined general, special, aggravated and punitive damages, and Michael, $125,160.37.
It also ordered Hermann to pay Angela $269,707.42, and Michael, $162,660.37.
The damages add up to a total of $809,735.58.
Jury trials for civil matters are extremely rare in the Yukon; the last one took place in 1994, during which Veale, then still a lawyer, served as counsel on the case.
All lawyers involved in the case declined to comment for this story, or did not respond to a request for comment.
Reached separately, Michael Senft also said he had no comment.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org