Clerk loses defamation case over what he said in closed-door meeting

Things said during closed-door meetings are not automatically protected by qualified privilege.

A mailroom clerk learnt this after exhausting all legal means to defend himself over defamatory comments he made against a former colleague at a closed-door company meeting held on Aug 3, 2012.

Mr Pius Chai, who is in his 50s, had uttered offending words directed at IT manager Randall D'Souza that were not justified, and within earshot of two others.

Mr D'Souza then took legal action but lost his case last year.

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On appeal, Judicial Commissioner Pang Khang Chau reversed the lower court's decision in April, saying Mr Chai's claim of qualified privilege was not made out in the Aug 3 meeting.

The judge said the Aug 3 meeting was a different occasion from the one on Aug 1 the same year where Mr Chai had made a request for a transfer.

Hence, words uttered at the second meeting cannot be treated as words uttered for the purpose of a transfer, and any claim of privilege had to be supported by facts relating to the Aug 3 meeting.

The judge ruled that it was unresolved whether Mr Chai's offending words were justified by the occasion, noting it was said directly to Mr D'Souza within earshot of the company's representatives present and were not said as part of his grievance or explanation.

"So what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander," said Judicial Commissioner Pang, stressing the need for "even-handedness" in approaching the pleadings of both parties.

Mr Chai was ordered to pay $30,000 in damages and $15,000 for the costs of the appeal.

The costs were arrived at by mutual consent after the parties noted, among other things, that Mr Chai was not a man of means.

The judge refused Mr Chai permission to appeal further.

Mr Chai then applied to the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal the case further.

After considering submissions from both parties, Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang dismissed the application last week and ordered Mr Chai to pay $2,000 in costs.

Mr D'Souza told The Straits Times yesterday that his life has changed since the 2012 incident, which badly affected his personal and family life and exhausted him "financially, emotionally and mentally".

Now unemployed after being retrenched by the company in December 2013, the 51-year-old said he is doing "meaningful" volunteer work in hospices.

"I am very happy and relieved there is finally closure after this protracted litigation. I am comforted that justice has prevailed," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'Clerk loses defamation case over what he said in closed-door meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe