Court to Determine Damages & Costs Against the Samoa Observer

The complainant, Opapo Oeti

By Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – 08 SEPTEMBER 2020: The Court of Appeal had referred the defamation case against the Samoa Observer back to the Supreme Court to enter judgment on liability for the complainants, Opapo Oeti and his daughter Toaipuapuaga (Toa) Patrick and to set damages and costs.

In passing judgment, the Court of Appeal allowed the Samoa Observer appeal in part but upheld the remaining findings in paragraph (35) and (55).

“In the view that the appeal is unsuccessful in relation to the most serious findings, the Samoa Observer is ordered to pay Reverend Oeti and Ms. Patrick (Toa) jointly costs on the appeal of $5,000 plus usual disbursements,” Court of Appeal.

Opapo had since relieved himself from his pastoral duties.

Background to Appeal

On the Samoa Observer issue of the 29 March 2017, the newspaper published a letter from a reader regarding Toa’s claim of stigmata, which prompted her father Opapo and Toa to file legal action against newspaper.

The article had similar texts to comments on the OLP blogger on the 26 March 2017.

The published comments in the newspaper included an incestual relationship between Opapo and Toa and that he fathered her children. There were also comments on both Opapo and Toa being mentally impaired.

These were the grounds for the lawsuit for general damages of $400,000, aggravated damages of $200,000 and punitive damages of $100,000 which totalled $700,000 and the case was heard by the Supreme Court Judge Mata Tuatagaloa.

Tuatagaloa did not make a ruling then but adjourned the matter for determination of costs and damages later, however, before that was done, the Samoa Observer appealed the liability findings.

Fair comment

Justice Tuatagaloa found that some of the statements published were untrue and defamatory and dismissed the newspapers affirmative defence of fair comment.

Counsel for the Appellant argued that there was no link between OLP blog and the publication and that Tuatagaloa erred in finding the letter read together with OLP’s blog implicating “some incestuous relationship or something sinister….”

The letter published in the newspaper had no headline reference to the allegations of an incestuous relationship, argued the Appellant.

The Court of Appeal disagreed.

“Tuatagaloa was entitled to take into account all relevant background material which was in the public domain when undertaking her innuendo assessment. That was the essence of a true innuendo inquiry,” said Court of Appeal.

They also agreed with Tuatagaloa that the innuendo meaning of the words used in the letter about the relationship between Opapo and Toa, and the paternity of Toa’s children was defamatory of both.

The matter is now back in the Supreme Court to determine the damages and costs to be paid by the newspaper to the complainants.

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