Ex-credit union director loses libel claim

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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A former director of the Eastern Credit Union (ECU) who sued the institution’s former president for defamation and slander for statements made in 2015 has lost his claim for compensation.

Ex-ECU director Harvey Borris sued ex-president Wayne Estrada for statements made in two media interviews on November 26, 2015, published in the Newsday newspaper and a radio interview on i95.5FM two days earlier, about the purchase of a property in Sangre Grande.

In his lawsuit, Borris said he disclosed to the ECU’s housing committee in 2013 that his brother owned the property in Sangre Grande, and repeatedly recused himself from any discussion on the purchase of properties by the credit union.

At first, the ECU agreed to buy the property, but then it bought another property, known as “Las Viviendas,” instead.

Borris claimed Estrada’s statements in the newspaper and on the radio programme were defamatory of him, since they suggested he was against the purchase of the Las Viviendas property and was the cause of friction at the ECU.

In a written ruling on Wednesday, Justice Frank Seepersad held Borris’s claim was devoid of merit.

In giving his reasons for dismissing the claim, Seepersad said he had first to consider whether the words complained of by Borris were defamatory, although he was not identified by name in the newspaper article. Borris had claimed he would have been identifiable because of a tagline he used, “I love my country.” However, Seepersad said this tagline did not feature in the newspaper article, and Borris had to plead and prove the article contained facts which would have identified him.

“However, the claimant has not done so in relation to the libel claim.”

In his findings on the radio interview, Seepersad said although Borris claimed Estrada had used the tagline, he also failed to establish he was identified.

“The phrase was not singularly unique nor exceptional nor was there evidence to establish that it was readily associated with the claimant and no other person,” the judge said.

Borris had also claimed he was removed from the ECU’s board and was unable to seek re-election because of the damage done to his reputation, but the judge also held he had not discharged the evidential burden to prove this.

In his decision, Seepersad addressed Estrada’s qualified privilege, truth and fair comment defences, saying he was entitled to address legitimate concerns of the membership, given that the court found that Borris was at meetings when the property purchase was discussed and that his presence was improper.

“The words complained of were spoken/published on an occasion of qualified privilege. The obligation to establish malice to rebut this defence rested with the claimant. However, the claimant adduced no evidence to establish same and he neither pleaded nor outlined particulars of malice.”

On the “truth and bona fides” of Estrada’s statements, Seepersad said the law recognised that truth was an absolute defence, and noted that Estrada testified that Borris was the only one who voted against the Las Viviendas purchase.

“Given the position he held, his mere presence in the room when matters attendant to the said property were discussed had the potential to unduly influence or colour the position of other committee members.” He said Borris’s presence at the meetings amounted to a “clear conflict of interest.”

On the fair-comment defence, he said that based on the evidence, Estrada did satisfy all the requirements needed to mount such a defence, adding that he found the ex-president’s comments to be “fair.”

In his ruling, Seepersad said the ECU and its subsidiaries played an integral role in TT’s financial landscape and the fiduciary responsibilities of elected officers were sacrosanct.

The judge, who is also hearing another lawsuit relating to the credit union’s recent election, said the frequency and nature of litigation involving the institution had caused some disquiet in the court’s mind.

“The prevailing circumstances suggest that there may be a need for a comprehensive review of the credit union’s practices, policies and modus operandi.

“Consequently the general membership and the Commissioner of Co-operatives may wish to adopt a more proactive approach so as to ensure that the highest standards of proper administration are adopted in the discharge of the society’s business.”

Borris was represented by attorneys Christopher George. Prakash Deonarine and Odette Clarke represented Estrada.