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John Furlong defamation case to begin in B.C. Supreme Court

06/14/2015 07:00 EDT | Updated 06/14/2016 05:59 EDT
Nearly three years after reporter Laura Robinson published allegations that former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong had abused students at a Burns Lake, B.C., Catholic school in the late '60s, the two are set to face off in court this week. 

It's one of the most hotly anticipated civil trials in British Columbia.

But it's Robinson suing Furlong for defamation — not the other way around.

"It is relatively rare for a journalist to sue someone for an attack on their reputation," says David Crerar, a defamation expert with Borden, Ladner, Gervais who is not involved with the case.

"So that in itself is interesting: the fact a journalist is a claimant rather than a defendant in a lawsuit."

Legal odyssey

The case is the result of a legal odyssey that began a Robinson story published in the Georgia Straight newspaper in 2012, alleging Furlong physically and verbally abused students as a gym teacher at Immaculata Elementary School.

Furlong has vehemently denied the claims and consistently maintained his innocence in both public statements and three civil lawsuits brought in the wake of the story by people who claimed they were students at the school.

He initially sued Robinson and the Georgia Straight for defamation, but later withdrew his claim against the newspaper. 

Robinson responded with a lawsuit of her own, claiming Furlong's statements about her reporting implied she was unethical, incompetent and motivated by personal animosity.

In the past year, one of Furlong's accusers dropped her claim. A judge dismissed another because the claimant hadn't attended Immaculata.

And in March, Furlong won special costs against the last of the three claimants, Daniel Morice.

Furlong said Morice had 53 criminal convictions including fraud, forgery, assault and kidnapping. He described the ordeal of the previous three years as "an unimaginable nightmare."

"It is time now to move on. I have been numb for months trying my best to cope and protect those I love," he told a news conference. 

"Living like this is not living at all."

She says he said

Claiming vindication, Furlong dropped his lawsuit against Robinson. 

But she did not reciprocate, saying then: "My suit is about an attack on my integrity and professional conduct as a journalist. It has never been about these three cases."

According to court documents, Robinson claims Furlong defamed her in public statements and media interviews in 2012 and 2013.

She claims the statements were made to expose her "to contempt, ridicule and hatred, and to cause other persons to shun and avoid [Robinson], and to lower [her] reputation in the eyes of right-thinking members of the community, all of which has in fact occurred."

In his response, Furlong claims Robinson sent affidavits alleging abuse she obtained from the people she interviewed to "high-profile persons in business and government and persons working for a number of different media outlets."

He claims she also sent emails to the mayor of Vancouver and a director of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Furlong claims her journalistic techniques are "highly unorthodox, prejudicial and skewed to creating innuendo, journalistic imbalance and errors in fact."

He also claims she has a "history of errors and/or defamation."

One of the witnesses Furlong intends to call is Ken Shields, the former coach of the Canadian national men's basketball team.

Furlong claims Robinson wrote an article alleging racism against Shields in 1994; he says those allegations were later found to be without merit, resulting in a retraction and a libel award.

'Reasonably appropriate'

In his defence, Furlong claims his statements were not defamatory.

He argues they amount to fair comment, and that he is protected by a qualified privilege because they were a response to an attack by Robinson. He says his response was "reasonably appropriate in the circumstance."

Though defamation cases often arise in relation to reporting, Crerar says there are few precedents involving journalists suing subjects.

In 1997, former Vancouver Sun business reporter David Baines won $825,000 in a defamation suit against a defendant who deliberately manufactured and spread lies intended to injure his reputation.

"Ultimately what is at the heart of this lawsuit is exactly the drama and tension that happens in real time between two real human beings," says Crerar.

"In these sorts of defamation claims, for example, was it reasonable for the defendant to say what he did in response to the negative articles published against him? That's going to be measured in legal terms, but it's also going to be measured in the reasonableness of what a human being in his position would do."

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