VANCOUVER — Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart can recover more than $100,000 in legal costs related to a failed defamation case launched by his political rivals in the Non-Partisan Association, a British Columbia Supreme Court judge has ruled.
Justice Wendy Baker ruled March 20 that the defamation case against Stewart by current and former members of the NPA's board of directors lies "closer to (strategic lawsuits against public participation) than it does to a legitimate contest between reputation and public expression."
Board members of the once-dominant Vancouver civic party sued Stewart after he issued a news release in January 2021 denouncing "hate and extremism" in the NPA in response to media reports on the party's internal turmoil over an ideological shift to the right.
Baker found the defamation claims had "substantial merit," but said Stewart's statements were not malicious and were fair game because the issues were in the public interest and had been widely reported.
After the case was dismissed in July 2022, Stewart sought damages, arguing the lawsuit was filed in bad faith for an improper purpose, but Baker ruled that awarding Stewart costs addressed any harm the case may have caused.
The plaintiffs in the case, including businessman Federico Fuoco and lawyer Wesley Mussio, said the news release falsely implied "that the board of the NPA contains extremists, who openly support hate groups, and are spreading hate within their party."
Baker found the NPA board members' claims had merit because the statements in the news release tended "to lower the reputation of the NPA board within the eyes of a reasonable person."
Stewart defended the release, saying the "NPA board had not done enough to deny the public imputations of extremism, hate, intolerance, racism, homophobia, misogyny or antisemitism among the NPA board members, as published in the news media."
Stewart said there were plenty of public news articles written prior to the news release that raised similar allegations, including quotes from "members of the NPA itself."
"I find that a person reading those media articles could honestly express an opinion that some members of the NPA board appeared to hold such views, and that the NPA board ought to take steps to distance itself from members maintaining them," Baker's July 2022 ruling says.
Baker's latest ruling on costs says the parties were clearly in "political competition" when the NPA board members filed the lawsuit, and doing so served to limit the former mayor's political expression until it was dismissed.
She found that it gave rise to "a state of affairs which could easily be seen as politically advantageous to the plaintiffs and the NPA."
The judge also found the NPA board members improperly attempted to disqualify three different lawyers retained by Stewart over conflict-of-interest concerns.
Baker found the squabbles over Stewart's counsel increased his costs and caused him anxiety, ruling that the plaintiffs challenged his choice of lawyers for "strategic reasons, in an inappropriate attempt to limit and thwart Mr. Stewart’s defence."
The judge decided against awarding damages to Stewart under the Protection of Public Participation Act, finding "that the full indemnity costs I have ordered fully addresses any harm to Mr. Stewart arising from this action."
Lawyers for neither Stewart nor the NPA board members were immediately available for comment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.
Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press