B.C.’s highest court has overturned a defamation award to a former West Vancouver MP stemming from an article more than a decade old.
The decision, handed down by a panel of three justices of the B.C. Court of Appeal, overturns an August 2017 decision of the B.C. Supreme Court that awarded Blair Wilson $125,000 in damages for an article published by the Province newspaper.
The article, which the appeal court justices noted set off a “firestorm of controversy” when it was published in October 2007, detailed allegations of Wilson’s “unpaid debts, improper campaign spending and unsuccessful business ventures.”
The earlier trial judge concluded that the newspaper was protected by a defence of “responsible journalism,” with the exception of one paragraph, which referred to a $22,870 loan allegedly made to Wilson by his mother-in-law Norma Lougheed shortly before her death.
It was later revealed that there was no “deathbed loan,” that the money was a reimbursement for campaign expenses from Wilson’s campaign account, and that Wilson had repaid his mother-in-law $16,800 for expenses she paid on his behalf.
The original trial judge awarded Wilson $125,000 for damage to his reputation caused by that part of the article.
The appeal court, however, ruled that the newspaper was entitled to have the defence of responsible journalism applied to the entire article – not just a part of it.
Accordingly, it dismissed the $125,000 awarded to Wilson.
Wilson, who was first voted in as a Liberal MP, represented the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country riding from 2006 to 2008.
After the stories came out in The Province, Wilson resigned from the Liberal caucus. He ran in the 2008 federal election as a Green Party candidate, but lost to John Weston of the Conservatives.
“Central to this case are the contours of what constitutes ‘public interest’ and the limits of the ability of the press and concerned citizens to engage in critical commentary of elected representatives,” wrote B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jane Dardi in the original decision.
Dardi wrote that Wilson’s “fiscal integrity and past business affairs were clearly relevant” to the public interest as he had been appointed national revenue critic. “Further he had campaigned on his fiscal responsibility and success as a businessman,” the judge wrote.
The lawsuit ground through the courts for many years, culminating in a 59-day trial between October 2015 and July 2016.
Wilson has since moved to Kelowna and owns a commercial apple orchard and craft distillery there with his wife.