Law prof awarded almost $500,000 in defamation suit

A multi-year defamation suit between two former colleagues at the University of Ottawa has moved one step closer to being resolved.

The Ontario Superior Court has ordered former physics professor Denis Rancourt to pay a cost award of $444,895 to law professor Joanne St. Lewis.

This comes after a jury found Rancourt guilty of defaming St. Lewis in two blog posts. The jury had awarded damages of $350,000, St. Lewis asked the court to award her costs on a substantial indemnity scale of $552,706.56 for fees and $55,305.97 for disbursements plus HST. Rancourt submitted he should pay nothing.

“The plaintiff was successful.  I fail to see any legitimate reason why she should not be entitled to damages,” wrote Justice Michel Charbonneau. “The only question to be determined is whether she should be partially or substantially indemnified.”

Charbonneau scolded Rancourt throughout the ruling, accusing him of unnecessarily stretching-out the trial.

“Contrary to what the defendant alleges, it is the defendant who needlessly lengthened the trial by disputing every claim of the plaintiff and pleading a number of untenable defences and then abandoning them in the course of the trial,” he wrote. “His submissions on costs are a continued illustration of his unreasonable tactics.”

Rancourt, who was self-represented, says that he was simply trying to defend himself.

“What the other side has been arguing a lot is that all of these motions are evidence that this man’s been abusing the system and so on,” he says. “But how you can say that just because the person is trying to defend himself through reasonable motions, how that can become this constant barrage of argument that I’m guilty?”

The case stems from St. Lewis claim that Rancourt damaged her reputation by using a pejorative term in a 2011 blog.

The post, which has now been removed from Rancourt’s UofOWatch blog, was titled: “Did Professor Joanne St. Lewis act as Allan Rock’s house negro?” In it Rancourt took exception to St. Lewis’ criticism of a 2008 student-commissioned report that found the University of Ottawa guilty of systemic racism. At the time, Rock was serving as school president.

Richard Dearden, St. Lewis’ lawyer and a senior litigation partner at Gowlings Lafleur Henderson LLP, says Rancourt’s motions made the trial go on longer than it needed to.

“Mr. Rancourt knows his way around the courts quite well,” he says. “As you see from the cost endorsement, there’s a tremendous amount of work required to get this to a jury verdict.

Rancourt also attempted to argue that the judge should not award substantial costs to the plaintiff because her success was divided. Charbonneau disagreed.

“I do not accept that any of the points raised by the defendant support a finding that success was divided,” he wrote. “The defendant’s submissions on this issue border on the irrational. The substantial success of the plaintiff is clearly demonstrated by the large amount of damages awarded, the finding by the jury that the defendant acted maliciously and the total injunctive relief being granted.”

Charbonneau cancelled a contempt hearing that had been scheduled relating to Rancourt’s online postings throughout the trial and interviews with the media.

“At one point I was asked by one of the defendant’s close colleagues whether he could publish certain statements made in court in the absence of the jury,” he wrote. “I told him that it was unlawful to publish anything said in the absence of the jury. Although this is the law in criminal proceedings it would appear this is not necessarily the case in civil proceedings.”

Rancourt says that he will not be able to pay the substantial costs awarded against him and the reason why he’s self-represented is because he couldn’t afford a lawyer.

He has filed an appeal on the jury verdict, the rulings made by Charbonneau, and the costs award.

“This has been weighing on Professor St. Louis for over three years and its gone to the Court of Appeal, so it still weighs on her,” says Dearden. “We just want this over. The jury verdict was pretty compelling.”

Rancourt however is hoping to be able to find a lawyer so that he can be represented during the appeal.

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