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Rebel Wilson’s $4.5 million win a sobering reminder that defaming a celebrity can be costly

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Earlier this year, a jury of six found that Rebel Wilson had been defamed by a series of articles published in print and online by Bauer Media magazines. The jury verdict was overwhelmingly in Wilson’s favour. The task of assessing Wilson’s damages fell to the trial judge, Justice John Dixon. That judgment was eagerly anticipated. Yesterday, Justice Dixon handed down his decision, awarding Wilson $4,567,472 damages – the largest defamation damages awarded by a court in Australian history.

Although record-breaking, the amount was not entirely unexpected. In her submissions, Wilson had sought a multi-million dollar payout.

The award of damages is large, but it consists of a number of components. The largest component is approximately $3.9 million for economic loss. Wilson also received $650,000 damages for non-economic loss. The award of damages was also for eight different publications, not just one article.

Assessing damages for defamation is a difficult task. Defamation law protects reputations. Reputation is essentially what other people think of you – it is your public self. Reputation is personal and subjective – no two reputations are alike. So the size of awards of damages in other defamation cases may be of limited value to a judge determining the damage to that plaintiff’s reputation and the personal distress and hurt suffered by that plaintiff.

In most defamation cases, plaintiffs only seek damages for non-economic loss. Such damages........

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